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A responsible business is one that has a positive impact on the society and the environment in which it operates, a business which believes that doing good is good for business.

Over the years, the most commonly used terminology has evolved. First CSR, then ESG and, more recently,  responsible business. COVID-19 accelerated existing responsible business activities as leaders were forced to rethink how their businesses operated across the whole ecosystem and how to connect that ecosystem in the ‘new normal’. Alongside this, the importance of climate action and the role that businesses have to play in this has become increasingly apparent. We are seeing buyers making conscious choices to purchase goods and services from those businesses they perceive as responsible over those they perceive as not.

While responsible business has been around for decades in one form or another, it has sprung up the Board agenda. It is now a strategic priority in order to have a highly performing business, with numerous studies showing that being responsible is beneficial to equity returns. In addition to this, it has been shown that responsible business improves employee engagement, which in turn improves productivity.

Where to begin your responsible business journey

There are many different frameworks for responsible business. For example, internationally, the UN Global Compact Principles and UN 17 Sustainability Goals. It can however feel overwhelming reading these lists and thinking about how you can meet the requirements of each area, especially for smaller businesses. As business leaders, it is therefore important not to go straight into the detail but to think through some clear steps:

  • Why do I want to be a responsible business?
  • What are we trying to achieve in our responsible business strategy?
  • Who are my different business stakeholders?
  • What areas of responsible business matter most to each stakeholder group?
  • Given this, what are our priorities when becoming a responsible business?
  • Are there others who can help me on my journey to being a responsible business?
  • How are we going to get there?

A clear strategy and action plan is really important to signal to the whole of your business ecosystem what you are trying to achieve and how. This will secure the buy-in required of all involved to embed responsible business into the way you operate.

As is clear in the UN Global Compact Principles, being a responsible business is not just about having a responsible business policy. The most significant movement to being a responsible business will be to embed your strategy and actions into your core business values. This will include holding people to account on delivery against the strategy and action plan and taking each decision you make as an opportunity to ensure alignment with being a responsible business.

There are some categories which are important for any business and form part of most business strategies.

Inclusion, Diversity and Equality

It is not new news that more inclusive and diverse teams are more successful and deliver better business outcomes. Initially, the majority of businesses focused on gender-diversity and then ethnic-diversity, but in recent years more companies are embracing the broader inclusion and diversity agenda alongside their gender and ethnicity targets. However, we are still in a world where the latest UN report on progress against the sustainable development goals found that one in six people has experienced discrimination in some form, with women and people with disabilities disproportionately affected.

It is clear there is still a lot more to do to reach targets and to embed inclusive workplace cultures. An important aspect of this is supporting diverse talent to be the leaders of tomorrow, given that they have fewer role models and generally face more hurdles to reach these positions due to unconscious bias. It is equally important to provide a workplace where it is safe for people to raise concerns and where non-inclusive behaviour can be called out and prevented from reoccurring.

Environment

Working on environmental issues is more pressing than ever. This is partly due toclimate change but also to protect the sustainability of your business. Government procurement over £5 million in England now requires tendering businesses to have carbon reduction plans. This is feeding down the supply chain and increasingly clients are looking to work with suppliers who are working on reducing their carbon footprint.

The first part of reducing your carbon footprint is measuring it as you cannot reduce what you have not measured. From this point, carbon reduction can be achieved through many different initiatives but, ultimately, being more efficient in the way we do business is a key driver. Being responsible means purchasing more environmentally friendly products, including renewable energy, but also purchasing less, including through innovating production processes to be more efficient. Alongside this, having better waste management practices and being more thoughtful and efficient about travel related to business – whether that be employee commuting, business travel or the transportation of goods to or from the business.

Governance

A successful business needs to have good governance; policies and procedures and structures. This allows the organisation to align with rules and regulations and the business strategy. Good governance is lean, transparent and complements the broader business strategy, helping the business to be as efficient as it can.

Governance structures include clear roles and responsibilities, not just for individuals but for committees/management teams, as well as  clear reporting lines and documentation of decision making. Policies should cover all aspects of responsible business, whether it be responsible procurement or client due diligence procedures.

Wellbeing

For many businesses, the most important asset is their people so ensuring those people are well is critical for business performance. Standalone wellbeing policies – for example the provision of private medical insurance or access to counsellors – while useful, does not really deliver the benefit of creating an environment where people are happy, engaged and productive. To achieve this you need these policies and for wellbeing to be embedded into the culture of the business and something that is lived by the people managers.

There has been a rise in the number of reported mental health issues in recent years, including workplace stress. And while more firms are providing mental healthcare alongside physical healthcare schemes it is important that the underlying causes are addressed. People need to be given the tools to manage their workloads in a healthy way and supported by good people managers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, businesses, large and small, have to embrace a responsible business strategy to be successful and outperform the competition. There are many aspects of responsible business and for each organisation the priorities will be different.

It is also clear that business responsibility is of critical importance to the broader social and global agendas, helping to deliver a better future for all.

Author:  Nicky Sinker