Centre for Responsible Business annual conference

Welcome to our new conference webpage. Thank you for attending ‘Shaping the Future of Responsible Business in a New World’ 2021 conference. We hope you found the panel discussions, networking and exhibition content insightful and illuminating. If you’d like more information on today’s event or to re-watch any of our panel discussions, read on.

Businesses all across the globe have faced significant challenges and changes throughout 2020, and the continuing international crisis has offered us important learning and redefinition of business resilience and adaptability to build shared success. It has never been more critical for business to build back better with responsibility at the forefront of their missions, and it’s vital that we come together, share knowledge and discuss how to achieve this.

Our conference bought together some 585 attendees from across industry and academia to hear from expert panels on the future of responsible business, discuss critical topics at round tables and network with peers to share best practice and solutions to key challenges. During the conference, 158 new connections were made amoungst attendees and speakers, creating new partnerships to work together for a more responsible future.

Featured video

Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and Co-Founder and Chair of IMAGINE

Feedback from attendees

"The conference design and on line sophistication was inspiring."
"I will embed the responsible business theories and practice in my business model."
"I will share these learnings in the classroom setup."
"Very insightful discussions. Although they were talking about the topics on the UK perspective, it can still be used even in other parts of the world."

Our Speakers

Our Panel Discussions

Disruption for Good: Post COVID, how do we use this crisis experience to spark the change we need for business?


Disruption for Good summary

•       What does Build Back Better mean for responsible Business? BITC have created four questions based on their work around building back responsibly: leaving no one behind, equality for all, mental health at work and sustainability.

•       Public perception of businesses are often different to how firms perceive themselves, according to findings from CBI research. Covid has put a focus on treating staff and customers well and fairly, but need to go further to protect the most vulnerable in society

•       Working from home has highlighted that businesses need to put more trust in employees, who have adapted and innovated with integrity during covid.

•       Measuring and defining responsible business is difficult but vital, as is making sure academic language is translatable for businesses.

•       Points around devolution, crossing class divides and reporting on gender and ethnicity pay gaps, alongside the drive towards net zero carbon, all of which has not been dampened by covid in many cases.

•       Must keep pushing for a more responsible future – the next generation of customers, employees and importantly, leaders, are demanding it.

Circular Economy & Supply Chains – how can we achieve the social, environmental standards we want through business practice and policy?


Circular Economy and Supply Chains summary

•       Too many businesses operate with a take, make, waste mentality.

•       Circular economy and responsible supply chains are linked to SDGs, which have become an intrinsic part of many businesses.

•       With current crises in earth overshoot, emissions and climate, now is the time to switch to circular economic models.

•       Circular thinking in business can be a driver for new revenue streams, a cost reducer and a reputation and brand builder. Poor practices in supply chains, forced labour and depletion of natural resources is not separate from your business, it reflects back on your reputation.

•       A move to stewardship is important. The SDGs are a stewardship framework.

•       Must avoid working in silos – must connect consumer behaviours, policy and governance, business. The whole system needs to transform, which throws up a lot of challenges and opportunities.

•       Vital to collaborate and innovate with suppliers, and know your whole supply chain. Share information up and down the chain and with other businesses.

•       There are technologies which can help measure and innovate circular economy models. Data models should be standardised and shared.

•       Covid laid bare many inefficiencies and bad practice in supply chains – real imperative to move on this and build regenerative economic models.

Education and Business, featuring Paul Polman: Understanding the critical importance of education & business working in partnership to meet the global responsible business challenge


Education and Business summary

•       Paul Polman: We are in multiple health, economic, social and environmental crises. Climate change is probably the biggest inter-generational crime ever committed. There’s no time to lose in building back better. Carving a new path will not be possible if we don’t include the business schools. They sit at the nexus of society. Their research informs and inspires, and their teaching prepares leaders for the challenges of the future. But they need to be responsible, with a focus on people and culture.

•       UK business schools are assessed every 2 – 3 years by the Charted Association of Business Schools and the current assessment poses the question, What do you think is the public good of business schools and how are you going about it?

•       Business schools are the success story of higher education for the money they make and employment prospects of students, but they need to go further. Birmingham Business School is a beacon school in that through their business partnerships, research and teaching, they’ve embedded responsible business in every aspect of their operations.

•       Lloyds Banking Group have issued sustainability training to their executives and others at the bank, and keep responsible business at the heart of all they do through the Helping Britain Prosper plan, Helping Britain Recover plan, and indeed their sponsorship of the Centre for Responsible Business.

•       Measurement of impact of research is important, as is measurement of impact of students passing through business schools – the latter is more difficult and needs thought.

•       There’s a need to move away from short term, quickest return thinking and look to longer term sustainability goals.

•       Significant numbers of international students in business schools bring a wealth of benefits economically and culturally. But carbon footprint is an issue.

•       Operating more frequently in the digital world has given Birmingham Business School access to speakers and virtual placements for their students which would not have been, or would have been very difficult to access previously.

•       Covid has shown us that change can happen quickly when there’s willingness and necessity – for example the adoption of online teaching. We need to bear this in mind for our recovery plans.

AI, Data and Trust - how do we ensure technology and data support business and society responsibly?

AI, Data and Trust summary

•       Ethics in AI and Data are less tangible than in other areas such as medicine, law and journalism. There needs to be more measurable regulation.

•       Every business needs to embed values and ethics as a backbone for uses of AI and data, make it an everyday, natural action.

•       Dissemination of untrustworthy data is widespread, and one of the fundamental issues we are facing right now is we’re about to make AI based on dirty data.

•       AI has no ethics on its own. It needs to be trained on good, ethical data sets.

•       All data should come with lineage, transparency – you should know the source, who owns it, evidence to back it up.

•       Existing legislation covers a lot of points in data usage including access, minimisation of use, but ethics goes beyond regulations and is more about understanding how to use data to deliver a fair, explainable and non-discriminatory outcome for everyone.

•       We need to stop and think about what we’re doing before passing decision making over to machines or AI.

•       In future, AI will be embedded into most technologies, so we need to start drawing those red lines and how we enforce policing in a digital world.

Our Roundtable Discussions

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Roundtable discussions

Attended by a network of industry and academic experts, the round table discussions were an inspiring assortment of ideas and thoughts on the following topics:

  • Give your consumers clear and trusted information to enable responsible choices

The issue: It might be easy to blame consumers for being lazy, fickle or hypocritical when it comes to making unsustainable choices, but many are rightly sceptical of some companies’ dubious ethical claims or are bamboozled by confusing or deliberately misleading labelling. Even for those most well-informed, there’s the risk of being paralysed by the Aristotlean paradox of ‘the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know’ when it comes to sustainability and the burden of realising no choice is entirely sustainable. There’s no point in companies spending all their energy and resources on more sustainable goods and services if consumers aren’t buying into them. A product that doesn’t sell is unsustainable by definition.

The potential solutions: Research has shown simple, clear labelling that’s easy to understand – such as traffic-light systems for all aspects of sustainability – are effective in influencing consumer choices. Third-party certification schemes and eco-labels, backed by governments and NGOs, are most trusted by consumers and also have a marked impact on responsible choices. But schemes like the RSPO and FSC labels for sustainable palm oil and forestry have had chequered records that damage consumer and business trust. And the number and complexity of certification schemes, eco-labels and sustainability info can confuse consumers and lead them to give up. Ultimately though, shouldn’t responsible choices be made by businesses higher up the value chain so that every consumer choice is a sustainable one?

  • Use your privilege to enhance society and nature

The issue: Businesses of all sizes are powerful entities that can influence their communities and the environment in countless ways. From helping to consumers to make more responsible choices to upholding environmental standards in supply chains, businesses can make a positive impact with every interaction they have along their value chain. Unfortunately, many big businesses still use their clout to avoid their responsibilities, lobbying governments to change laws that limit their ability to exploit people and natural resources, employing hordes of lawyers and accountants to help them evade paying taxes, and spending enormous sums on advertising and PR to ‘greenwash’ their brand rather than substantively change the sustainability of their operations.

The potential solutions: Business needs to recognise it has a civic role to play in supporting and enhancing the community, whether through using their platform to promote important social issues – as Ben & Jerry’s did with Black Lives Matter and their ‘White Supremacy’ press release – or simply by paying their taxes and welcoming any new sustainability regulation. Companies should embrace their ‘purchase power’ and buycott suppliers with strong social and environmental standards, like UK stationary supplier and social enterprise Wildhearts, whose client base is made up of many global corporations all looking to support each other in realising their Global Goals targets. Making enhancing nature a key part of a business’ strategy is also key, with global carpet manufacturer Interface going as far as the biomimicry idea of ‘Forest as Factory’ and making sure the environmental services their factory provides (drainage, biodiversity, water and CO2 recycling etc) matches that of the local ecosystem.

  • Respect planetary boundaries and seek collaborative, circular solutions

The issue: According to Global Footprint Network, our demand for the Earth’s resources exceeds what it can sustainably replenish by 60%. That means our current levels of consumption require 1.6 Earths to sustain and that’s set to increase 25% by 2030. The linear ‘take-make-waste’ approach in business is a disaster for our planet, and many businesses are blissfully unaware of the many environmental ‘tipping points’ that we are fast approaching that could precipitate catastrophic ecological and climate collapse – damaging the resilience of the very resources they are dependent upon.

The potential solutions: Business needs to embrace more regenerative, circular solutions, involving reuse and recycling of materials. For many companies that will mean working collaboratively with other companies to ‘close the loop’ and establish relationships where there is no ‘waste’ as such, just the beneficial exchange of resources. The Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Estate in Denmark is a model of this symbiotic business relationship, where an oil refinery, power plant, pharmaceutical company and other companies exchange waste materials, energy, water and information that saves them an estimated $15 million a year on new resources. It’s a challenge that the electric vehicle industry in the UK is looking to resolve if it is to sustainably reuse and recycle the tens of millions of used batteries that will be produced over the coming decades.

  • Use performance metrics that accurately measure impact and align with the Global Goals and be fully transparent by using open-access reporting based on the Global Goals

The issue: The SMART measures business use are narrow, short-termist and fragmented, particularly in big business where targets are primarily concerned with financial imperatives to produce ever-increasing profits for quarterly reports and rising share prices. As a result, the same unsustainable traits and priorities are encouraged in employees and the wider business culture, where silo-thinking and chasing monthly sales targets for financial reward become the norm. But greater aspiration and broader motivation are needed to seriously tackle the Global Goals. Moreover, opaque, inadequate and selective reporting is hindering businesses from being properly accountable to their stakeholders on sustainability, too.

The potential solutions: Companies need to make sure performance metrics all link back to their Global Goals-based purpose, so that sustainability becomes a key factor throughout the value chain. The easiest to do this is to use one of the many Global Goals-based business reporting and monitoring tools, which help companies map their social purpose and activities against the 17 Global Goals and create KPIs and measures that directly contribute to them. Examples include the World Benchmarking Alliance, Future-Fit Business Benchmark and B Impact Assessment – all of which provide a full spectrum of sustainability measures and allow their thousands of users to compile handy benchmarks across countries and sectors. Ultimately, companies should aim to use open-access reporting platforms, like G17Eco by World Wide Generation, which allow for full transparency and external stakeholders to pull the information most material to them and their sustainability concerns.

  • Choose whether to grow or not and minimise any damage of expansion

The issue: The Darwinian ‘grow or die’ mantra has become so pervasive and canonical in conventional business, few question whether all growth is good even when it evidently comes at the expense of society. Because while some firms expand through innovation or buying up their competitors, others do so by deliberately driving their competitors out of business or exploiting their suppliers. Such aggressive expansion strategies can not only have damaging impacts on wider society (i.e. unemployment and poverty wages), they can also harm the business by immiserating staff, stretching resources and eating away resilience (history is littered with companies bankrupted by their world-dominating ambitions). Moreover, ever-growing businesses consume more and more resources and produce more and more waste, destroying the planet’s life-supporting ecosystems. As the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg put it to the United Nations’ climate change summit in 2020: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

The potential solutions: Can sustainable businesses really have their cake and eat it when it comes to growth? Certainly there are proponents of ‘green growth’ who are optimistic that technological advancements will allow for a less resource-heavy, cleaner economy in future – an idea which underpins green industrial policies like the Green New Deal. But followers of the ‘degrowth movement’ see the very premise of sustainable development as oxymoronic, arguing that encouraging capitalist growth and consumption in a finite and environmentally stressed world is inherently unsustainable. More recently, ‘zero-growth’ economists like Tim Jackson and Kate Raworth have sought to redefine the role of business in relation to human wellbeing and planetary boundaries, where a shared prosperity is possible with slow, low or no growth at all. Certainly there are companies, like the textile manufacturer Trigema in Germany, that choose not to grow or outsource their business, prioritising the wellbeing of the communities they are already based in rather than cutting costs and expanding market share to increase shareholder returns.