Is business just a "problem train": ICAS annual lecture 2017

David Nussbaum
robert-outram By Robert Outram for CA Today

6 November 2017

Business has a stark ethical choice: to be a passenger on a “problem train” heading for potential disaster, or a player, taking active steps to help solve the world’s big challenges.

That was the message from David Nussbaum CA, speaking at the ICAS Annual Lecture in London on 31 October.

This year’s lecture took place at Stationers’ Hall in the City of London, with the theme: “The world’s big problem: is business a player or a passenger?”

Giving the lecture, David threw down a challenge, outlining three key steps every business could take to ensure that it is part of the solution and not part of the problem.

David is Chief Executive of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, and manages the group’s secretariat.

As he explained to guests at the lecture, The Elders recently identified three areas of focus for the group:

  • Governance and leadership;
  • Conflict, its causes and consequences; and
  • Inequality, exclusion and injustice.

The Elders’ approach goes alongside the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by member states of the United Nations.

The UN recognises, David said, the huge challenges - like inequality, poverty, war, environmental degradation and climate change – and also the huge opportunities in the world today.

ICAS Annual Lecture 2017

So what can business do to help tackle these issues? David argued that an ethical business needs to do three things:

  • Ensure that it is not causing the problems through its actions;
  • Actively contribute to solutions; and
  • Communicate what it is doing, and why, to stakeholders, in an integrated way.

David said: “For some businesses, what they can best do is fundamentally change their whole business model - because as currently constituted, they are part of the problem. They are going along with the ride as passengers on the locomotive of our present world order.  It may seem a comfortable journey, and perhaps provided you individually get off before the train runs into the buffers or worse, you personally may be all right. But the train itself is a danger to humanity.”

David added that actively helping to solve the big problems could prove to be very good business, generating revenue. And he stressed: “This is not about making CSR contributions on the side: it is about the mainstream activities of the business.”

He also underlined the role of Integrated Reporting - he is Deputy Chair of the board of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) - in communicating the track record of a business across a range of areas, not just the financial arena.

He concluded: “The risks of business simply seeing its role in these global debates as a passenger are stark. If business does not see itself as a player in the wider world, with a vested interest in supporting international institutions, mechanisms and structures that act in the wider interests of all humanity, it could spell disaster for all of us.”

In a lively Q&A session, David took questions from guests on topics from the role of competition - positive and negative - to the best way to clamp down on corruption around the world.

Summing up, ICAS President Sir Brian Souter thanked David and said: “The question is, first, are we part of the problem or part of the solution? Then, we need to contribute to solving the problems; and we need to communicate what we are doing to help solve those problems.  My view is that if we do not voluntarily do the things David suggests, we will be compelled to do them, and in difficult circumstances.”

Read David's full speech

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