Walk the Talk — A Call to Action for Sustainable Business Practices

Each year, leaders from around the world gather in Davos, Switzerland to discuss the current global agenda with the intent to impact the direction it takes for the next twelve months – and beyond.

Topics often center on how we can do better at protecting the environment, at helping those who cannot help themselves, creating sustainable businesses and addressing business integrity. In general, attendees want to leave a better world for future generations.

There is a lot of talk about good intent.

Pascal Gerken, 2018-2019 YPO Chairman, stated at the event and YPO-hosted panel discussion, Profit with Purpose: A New Global Model, “At Davos, people always talk about how business should have a purpose, but the big question is how do we make sure we don’t just keep talking. How do we walk the talk?

How do we make sure that we put our words into action, and how do we scale globally?”

Led by moderator Maurice Ostro, OBE, founder of Entrepreneurial Giving and YPO Europe member, the room of global business leaders discussed perspectives on how businesses can have an impact on creating a better world.Maurice Ostro, OBE

“Businesses can work better together, work better with governments and work better with other organizations to truly be a meaningful force for good,” says Ostro.

“To make true impact, we have to recognize that none of us can do it alone — not governments, not NGOs and not businesses,” says Ostro. “The only way to succeed, the only way to make a meaningful impact is to collaborate.”

And there’s no better place to start a chain reaction of change and positive impact than through the 27,000 members of YPO — heads of businesses, NGOs and industries around the world.

“The question we must ask ourselves,” says Ostro, “is how do we use our business strength to create impact?”

The Panel

Panelist Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, suggested that businesses can work with organizations like UNICEF. “We do work in nutrition, health education, water sanitation and protection. We’re in 192 countries,” says Fore. She suggests businesses can work with UNICEF. “We need mentors and we need apprenticeships. We need internships. Your employees would feel they are doing something good.

“Everyone can do something,” says Fore.

Lady Lynn de Rothchild, CEO, E.L. Rothchild, reminded all that the corporation was not created by God. “Business as a force for good. The idea that we must contemplate anything else is somewhat astonishing.”

There’s nothing to say that capitalism, which we all have benefited from, is too big to fail. For our preservation … we need to take care of the kind of capitalism that we represent – Lady Lynn de Rothchild, CEO, E.L. Rothchild

Governments give companies license to operate and there’s nothing that says this can’t be taken away. “There’s nothing to say that capitalism, which we all have benefited from, is too big to fail,” says Rothchild.

“For our preservation, in a world that is going to progress, we need to take care of the kind of capitalism that we represent,” she states. “Preserving what has been so good to us is self-interest, as well as a moral imperative.

“Every company needs to decide for itself how to address problems — in a profitable way — and to serve customers.”

Another panelist, Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO, The B Team, states, “In the last two years we’ve all been waking up to the fact that business-as-usual is no longer an option.”

Tómasdóttir offers that what is needed is courageous leadership. “There is a leader in every one of us.”

Halla Tómasdóttir» Tweet quote by Halla Tómasdóttir

“Every one of us must be part of the solution. We need transformative, courageous and holistic leadership at this time, and it must come from everyone. We are facing a confluence of crisis the world over, starting with the existential climate crisis.

“There is no future beyond planetary boundaries, yet we continue to live like there is,” says Tómasdóttir.

She was followed by Grete Faremo, Under-Secretary-General & Executive Director, UNOPS, who agrees with Fore on working with a global humanitarian organization. “At UNOPS we help develop green jobs and local, young entrepreneurs who want to do good and want to succeed in business. But in a sustainable manner.

“We help develop capacity, competence and business models that are sustainable,” says Faremo.

She also says that coming from a system that asks for 20, 25, even 30 years of leadership before you qualify for a job at the U.N., it’s important for them to partner with young entrepreneurs in order to be innovative.

“We can promote innovation to a broader business community and setting,” says Faremo.

According to Sir Martin Sorrell, Executive Chairman, S4 Capital, “The number one, long-term problem we face is technological disruption and transformation — which is going to accelerate.”

And the second is the economic policies that were put into place after 2008, which are basically low-cost money that has helped the private equity industry grow.

There are three key issues around technological disruption and the deprivation. There are going to be shortages and surpluses and one of the things we’re very bad at is providing solutions for all this.

He suggests that the solution must be “about providing subsidy effectively; providing subsidy for mobility, subsidy for education and subsidy for soft and hard infrastructure.”

The panel was followed by a broader discussion in the room tackling seven areas of concern identified by the panel:

  • Gender Equality
    Although gender ‘equality’ is a good place to start the conversation, some attendees felt a need to change the narrative. Gender ‘neutrality’ was suggested as being more about diversity and not just giving an advantage to women.
  • Education
    Some of the interesting conversation around education included allowing corporations to create opportunities for students from the developing world. This could enable students to come in, learn how businesses work, interact with executives, and really get a sense of how things work. Once they graduate from school, they are better able to enter the workforce and bring previously untapped potential.
  • Income Inequality
    It was stated that businesses go toward the path of least resistance and will do things like allocating resources in major metropolitan areas rather than smaller cities and rural areas. Business leaders shouldn’t be waiting on government to set minimum wages. Businesses should take the lead when it comes to employee pay and setting threshold standards for income.
  • Health Care
    There is a responsibility for all organizations to participate in health care. Business leaders should stand up and say health care is something that we are responsible for. It was also stated that it is important to de-stigmatize all forms of health care, including mental health.
  • Conflict Prevention, Peace and Security
    There were many different approaches suggested for addressing the issue of peace. It was discussed that teaching entrepreneurship can be a driver of peace, and that we should hold each other accountable for accomplishing objectives we set for ourselves.
  • Climate Change
    Climate change must be addressed via business. It’s the only way to scale solutions. We should incentivize businesses through public and private partnerships. There is a need to create a global, open-source platform for information sharing.
  • Infrastructure and Industrial Growth
    Globalization is not only an ideal, but in fact, already a reality. It was discussed that the core infrastructure needed in the world is still education. We need to be part of building intellectual constructs for globalization.

The Data

YPO recently conducted the 2019 YPO Global Leadership Survey, and 2200 YPO members, heads of business around the globe responded. Of those members, 77 percent stated their minds have changed over the past five years on wanting their business to make an impact, and 49 percent said it was their experience with YPO that was the key driver of change for them.

Pascal Gerken

“What concerns them is climate change,” says Gerken, “and a lack of education in the world, justice and peace. Poverty, economic growth and creating jobs were top of mind for 850 respondents.

“The challenges that leaders around the globe face most is government regulation. But we have seen governments successfully work with businesses. There can be positive regulation.

“Together we can walk the talk of business as a force for good,” says Gerken.


To read more about how YPO members are making a difference, visit our Social Impact page.

An experienced writer with a background in public relations, Vicky enjoys writing about brands, the people that give them life, and about business topics that matter to senior executives. Vicky is the senior manager of content at YPO.