Responsible Business Hub

What does responsible business mean?


"For those who think business exists to make a profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist. Surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that?"

- Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface Inc.

Profit is what drives many businesses. But responsible business recognises that it must be driven by more than just the pursuit of money, looking also to improve society and nature that its profits – and very existence – depend upon.In the past, being responsible meant that business endeavoured to behave ethically, operated in a sustainable way or engaged in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, such as donating to charities. But responsible business is now recognised as being much more aspirational and holistic, involving all those things and much more.

Whether it’s tackling climate change, creating a fairer and more equal society, or encouraging biodiversity, responsible business needs to engage with all the world’s biggest problems. There can be no trade offs between people, planet and profit – they are interconnected and dependent on each other.

While academics are still debating and practitioners are still discovering what responsible business looks like, the most authoritative definition and principles (below) have been developed by the Centre for Responsible Business based on the latest research, policy and best practice.

Responsible business at Birmingham Business School

What is responsible business?

A responsible business is a company that judges its purpose and practices against all of the United Nation’s Global Goals (see below), embedding them in its strategy and operations. These companies aren’t only driven by profits but by their desire to help make a better world, contributing to the health and wellbeing of society and the environment.

Sustainability is just one vital part (and consequence) of being a responsible business, which encompasses every facet of a company from its governance and leadership to its production methods and relationships with customers and stakeholders. Being responsible will naturally mean different things for different companies, depending on where they are. The priorities for responsible businesses in Malawi, for instance, might differ from those in Sweden.

Our leading research has identified the following common traits of responsible businesses and how they behave, no matter what size or sector:

  • They aren’t just growing or profitable but purposeful.
  • They manage even what they can’t measure and are fully transparent to their stakeholders.
  • They recognise the value of connected and circular thinking and respect planetary boundaries.
  • They don’t wait for consumer demand to make sustainable changes and embrace their role as citizens in society.
  • They use protocols and inclusive, collaborative working to avoid making irresponsible decisions.

At its root, being responsible is a proactive mindset that constantly asks questions about the sustainability of a business and never accepts ‘don’t know’ as good enough. Those championing this mindset are helping to co-create a new science of responsible business by venturing out of their zones of ignorance, testing new theories and sharing their unique and different experiences of sustainability.

December 2019: What is Responsible Business?

Jargon Buster

Struggling with academic language? Lost in business acronyms? Our jargon buster has a list of helpful definitions for the most common (and more obscure) terminology in responsible business.

Our jargon buster


The Global Goals 

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (or Global Goals) were agreed by world leaders in 2015 and adopted by 193 countries. Together, they are a blueprint for a more harmonious, equitable and resilient world that is fit for the future, calling for an end to poverty, protection for the planet and peace and prosperity for all by 2030.

Through 169 targets and 232 indicators, the Global Goals provide a pragmatic statement of contributions required from governments, businesses, civil society and individual citizens to realise these aspirations.


Most importantly for business, they also help to define what ‘doing business responsibly’ actually means, translating a fuzzy concept that has been in use for years into specific goals and measurable targets that – even if imperfect – everyone can understand and agree on. They provide a new consensus and vocabulary for negotiating the purpose of all organisations and account for what is valued, valuable and socially acceptable.

The Global Goals are all interconnected and action in one area will affect outcomes in others. They can be grouped in many different ways, but it is useful to think of them in three clusters:

  • Economic (Global Goals 7, 8, 9 and 12)
  • Societal (Global Goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 16 and 17)
  • Planetary (Global Goals 6, 13, 14 and 15)

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Responsible Business Manifesto

While the practical science of responsible business is still being explored and understood, we have distilled some underlying principles into a 15-point manifesto that will help guide responsible business thinking and combat damaging myths that trap companies in unsustainable habits. 

The Responsible Business Manifesto

1. Make profits in pursuit of purpose rather than maximising profits >

Profits aren’t inherently irresponsible, but maximising them inevitably will be. That’s because such an approach prioritises financial gain over all the other social values and sustainability concerns of your business.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-08E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

2. Choose whether to grow or not and minimise any damage of expansion >

A business doesn’t have to grow to be successful. But if you choose to, do so responsibly by making sure your extra consumption is balanced with the needs of society and nature. 

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-03E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15

3. Balance the interests of all stakeholders and ecosystems, not just of the owners >

Responsible businesses engage with their employees, customers, suppliers, communities and wider society to understand and accommodate their needs and concerns as part of their purpose too.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-16E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

4. Use performance metrics that accurately measure impact and align with the Global Goals >

Only by using such metrics will a business actually improve its sustainability, as well as be more likely to avoid any undesirable or unintended consequences from its activities.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-05E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-10E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13

5. Be fully transparent by using open-access reporting based on the Global Goals >

Open-platform reporting, like G17Eco, is the only way to make a business truly accountable to all its stakeholders and ensure sustainability standards are genuine and comparable.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-05E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-10E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

6. Use technology, including AI, to help avoid triggering unforeseen tipping points in our ecosystems >

Responsible businesses need to follow the science and make use of the latest monitoring and modelling technology in order to manage the radical uncertainty of environmental risks.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-02E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-06E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15

7. Respect planetary boundaries and seek collaborative, circular solutions >

Rather than a ‘make-take-waste’ approach, responsible businesses should try to eliminate waste and pollution by reusing and recycling as much as possible, working in cross-sector partnerships with others to ‘close the loop’ on the life-cycle of their products.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-07E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-08E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15

8. Work collectively to build society and nature’s resilience and avoid systemic risks >

Because sustainability is a holistic issue, responsible businesses need to do all they can to build up the resilience of the social and ecological systems that support them – from simply paying their fair share of local taxes to working with NGOs to protect global biodiversity.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-01E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-02E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-03E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-04E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-06E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-16

9. Understand the systemic nature of any problem to find its most effective solution >

Business leaders who take a systemic approach – looking at the wider impacts on wider society and the environment – are better able to anticipate, innovate and collaborate on issues of sustainability and know where to intervene most effectively.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-08E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

10. Give your consumers clear and trusted information to enable responsible choices >

Working with third-party certification schemes and using clear, traffic light-style labelling for social and environmental impacts will help consumers make more sustainable choices.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15

11. Value the trust and support of the people you depend upon >

Trust is essential for delivering any programme of sustainability that must involve working with a range of internal and external stakeholders. So make trust a strategic priority with measurable KPIs on all critical relationships, and don’t wait for new policy or laws to raise your standards.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-16E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

12. Use your privilege to enhance society and nature  >

Responsible businesses embrace their role as citizens, using their platform and influence to support social justice campaigns, boycott and support suppliers with strong sustainability standards, and contribute to the welfare and infrastructure of society.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-10E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-16E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

13. Don’t reward or incentivise irresponsible behaviour  >

Recognising your staff’s values and motivating them through purpose, rather than profits, is more likely to encourage the kind of collaborative and innovative work that the complex problems of sustainability require.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-03E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-08E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17

14. Create an inclusive culture that respects the dignity of staff and stakeholders >

Businesses with diverse workforces and employee representation in managerial decisions are shown to have increased productivity and resilience, making them more sustainable and appealing to staff and consumers alike.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-03E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-05E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-08E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-10

15. Prioritise the sustainability of the planet over your business >

Ultimately, the future of all human activity and our very existence is dependent on a healthy, life-sustaining Earth.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-06E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-07E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15


Five Pillars of Responsible Business

In order to understand responsible business behaviour and take meaningful action, it’s useful to break it down into five key pillars:

  • Governance
  • Accountability
  • Production
  • Consumption
  • Leadership

For each pillar, we’ve identified a four-step ‘positive pathway’ that any business can take to become more responsible in that area.

 Positive pathways graphic copy

But these are just the actions we know are proven to work so far. The science of responsible business is growing all the time and below you’ll find lots of inspiring ideas, theories and research from a range of academic disciplines, businesses, organisations and countries that are leading the way in responsible business practice.

Responsible governance 

Responsible businesses balance the interests of all stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, the community and wider society – not just those of the owners.

Responsible governance

Meeting colour 400

Responsible accountability

Formal scorecards and financial accounting systems aren’t set in stone. They represent past choices as to what and how to measure things in business – past choices that may be steering us in the wrong direction.

Responsible accountability

Calculator 400

Responsible production 

Responsible businesses already recognise that an extractive, ‘Take-Make-Waste’ approach to production is reckless and unsustainable, and that circular, ‘closed loop’ strategies which seek to reuse, recover and recycle resources are the way forward.

Responsible production

Turbines 400

Responsible consumption

Ethical consumers have played a vital role in driving companies towards more sustainable products and practices over the years. But a responsible business shouldn’t wait for consumer demand to make this transition since, ultimately, businesses have the power to make every consumer choice an ethical one.

Responsible consumption

Paper 400

Responsible leadership

Even business leaders who are proudly committed to sustainability can unwittingly find themselves making irresponsible decisions. But a new model of inclusive, teams-based leadership can help mitigate against these oversights and improve decision-making by encouraging more methodical processes that listen to all stakeholders and employees.

Responsible leadership

Black and white meeting 400

FT commendation