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There was a very interesting debate in the Lords this week questioning whether business is doing enough to address the biggest social challenges of our age. Strangely, there are not many debates about business in the chamber and I think it’s very important to do so. Here is my speech :

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for her wide-ranging and inspirational introduction. I hope to be a ray of sunshine in today’s debate on a rather gloomy and rainy afternoon.
I was reflecting on how quickly the business landscape has changed in my career since 1994—it feels rather long, although I realise that it is still relatively short. Even when we started our business, Lastminute.com, in 1997, the idea that we should build in any kind of social responsibility right from the beginning would have been strange, and yet I was somebody who, I hope, had always had those values at my core. When I think about the start-ups at the time and the energy and excitement with which they were being built, very few had a social purpose or the idea of corporate social responsibility hardwired into them. How things have changed.

I was  contemplating the biggest challenges faced by the UK. In an attempt to be ambitious, I picked out the three that I reckon will be hardest to solve over the next 50 years—climate change, gender equality and the technology disruption that we all face. From every angle, each of those challenges is being addressed in a profound and interesting way by businesses, beyond the core nature of their daily commercial life.
Before talking through some examples that I know in detail, I declare an interest as a board member of Marks and Spencer, which is world class in addressing some of the big structural challenges that we face, particularly climate change. Marks and Spencer was one of the first companies to declare itself carbon neutral; to make all its stores carbon neutral; and to launch huge programmes of recycling. Fashions could be brought back to stores and sent back to factories to be remade into other things. It has huge programmes beyond the UK’s shores to help people in countries where we have supply bases. It is one of the first companies to have a really robust and transparent view of every single worker in the supply chain and deployed in the company. The company has an extraordinary and profoundly important influence on the landscape of British business.
Your Lordships may not be aware that, most recently, Marks and Spencer has worked with a new organisation, the Blue Marine Foundation, which is creating huge marine reserves around the world, particularly with commercial and private money. It has created one of the largest protected areas around Lyme Regis to bring back the fish stocks. Fish is already being supplied to Marks and Spencer’s stores, and the fish stocks in Lyme Regis are being rejuvenated with incredible speed.
Marks and Spencer is one example of how a company has taken a huge lead on climate change. Because of that, it has been asked to be part of a global force for good: collectively.org, of which some noble Lords may be aware. It is a website for younger people sponsored by some of the biggest companies in the world but with an absolute focus on the big social challenges that young people are interested in, including climate change. Everything from Coca Cola, to Intel, to Marks and Spencer comes together to help share stories about how to change the world and make it a better place.
The next huge structural challenge that I want to talk about is gender equality. There are so many examples of corporations taking the knotty and important issue of how to encourage more women into work and make sure they are paid the same and not only reach the boardroom but have equal access when they first start work. When I asked on Twitter for some good examples in the UK, I was struck that the only example that people could give that was tangible and not just pontificating and making signals about the direction of travel was Arup engineering, which I thought was interesting. From the beginning, it has had the ambition to recruit women as 40% of its engineering workforce. Apparently, it is very successful—something I was not aware of.
One of my favourite global examples is Intel and its Girl Rising project, which is hugely successful on social media. It is an enormous programme of work with lots of different examples of women all over the world from Africa to India to south-east Asia doing incredible things. There is a big programme of funded education for women in work. We need those programmes here in the UK.
The third challenge and perhaps the one that I know best is the technology disruption, which I think many noble Lords wish had never happened—but unfortunately we are stuck with the internet, with all its wonders and some of its woes. I have recently been working on basic digital skills. My noble friend referred to that in her speech, although not directly. We face a profound challenge of skills in this country. As I have said before, the House of Lords—unlike me, not given to hyperbole—described the skills challenge as a “crisis”. That is true the whole way through the chain from basic skills through to how we will fill the 600,000 empty jobs right now in the tech sector and the 1 million jobs that will be empty by 2020.
The issue of basic digital skills is what I have been working on most urgently. We have 12 million adults in this country who cannot use the internet to get the basic benefits of being online, such as saving money— £100 a year even in the poorest households— getting work, because 90% of jobs are advertised online, and just communicating and being safe, as all of us like to be. However, what I have had most success with is the establishment of a charity called Go ON UK. It is entirely paid for by the corporate sector. We have 10 CEOs round our boardroom table from EE to Talk Talk, the Big Lottery Fund, Age UK, E.ON and Lloyds Bank. They all turn up and are dedicated to the cause and we are beginning to make some real inroads. We have created platforms and data to show where the profound problems are, and a heat map so that we can see where digital exclusion exists. We are doing deep dives around areas of the country where we are trying to create places where everyone is brought online.
Noble Lords can imagine that the power of the network of people around the boardroom table is very interesting. When we match the Post Office with Lloyds Bank and messaging from the BBC, we can really begin to create change, because we are able to reach consumers from lots of different angles, not just using the government lever. I firmly believe that this joined-up working will solve problems, and Go ON UKs CEOs around that boardroom table are dedicated to doing just that. I hope that that is a robust and good example of where business is changing.
When I think back to all of the start-ups that are energising the UK—as I am sure the Minister will tell us, there are practically more start-ups in this country than in Silicon Valley—it is an exciting time to be starting a business in the tech sector. Those start-ups come to fruition with a very different set of moral values: is it is interesting. Younger people are just more cognisant of the complicated issues that they face and the complicated landscape in which they will operate. I am heartened. An incredible programme has been set up by Founders Forum, the Founders Pledge, which is getting people starting businesses to say that, at exit, 2% of the value of that exit will go to good causes. With £100 million businesses, that can have a really interesting effect. It already has 156 signatories, so I hope that that will lead to real change.

I am also much taken by a good piece of recent research by a media company called Adjust Your Set into what millennials are thinking about business and social purpose. Some 70% of millennials say that they do not want to interact with a company that does not show what its social purpose and value in the world is. I would caution any organisation to take big heed of that, because their consumers of the future will not be their consumers unless they rethink how they position themselves in the world and the wider responsibility that they have as a corporate.
The world is changing. We have some big challenges and I am particularly keen to hear from the Minister how we can keep reducing the silos between the corporate sector and the charitable sector. I have recently started a new organisation, Doteveryone. Even applying for status, whether as a limited company, a CIO or a charity, is just too complicated—it is still far too difficult to do different things. But I am an optimist and I believe that the world is changing in the right direction.

One thought on “Is business doing enough?

  1. I think the 1st responsibilty of business is to stay in business, to make a profit, grow & prosper. Anything after that is fine, but first things first. Businesses crearte jobs & a pay taxes as do their employees. Around the globe governments tend to make things harder, not easier, for businesses to make $$ while at the same time demand that businesses do more for others. The do this mostly through taxes & regulations. The exception seems to be China which is why I have my brand’s products made there. Otherwise I’d be out of business.

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