Photo by Ricardo Savvi/Concordia Summit

Posted in: thought leadership

4th October 2017

Restoring Trust with Purpose

By Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

Trust is the vital and indispensable foundation of any well-functioning society. It is the currency of human civilization.

The American writer, H.L. Mencken, rightly observed that "it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together." And that mutual trust is embodied in the institutions that connect us together – from government, business, communities and civil society. Today, the public’s trust in those institutions is in free-fall. We are facing a profound crisis in trust, which, if unchecked, could unravel decades of progress and diminish our hopes for a brighter future for all.

Much of this public disillusionment is closely linked to the fall-out of the global economic crisis, the vacuum in political leadership, and the corrosive effective of pervasive corruption. A world where trust is low is a challenging environment for business and government. If we want to have a thriving world, where business prospers, communities function, people enjoy economic fairness and natural resources are protected for generations to come, we need to restore trust, and quickly.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer us a shared roadmap to a promising future in which trust can be repaired, by creating a world that is inclusive, fair, sustainable and stable. A world where no-one is left behind. Better Business, Better World, the report prepared by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, clearly outlined why the SDGs need business engagement to succeed, and why in turn the SDGs represent a tremendous opportunity for business to build real value. The report highlights the minimum $12 trillion economic opportunity offered by the SDGs - a prize which we can unlock if companies take purpose-driven, socially accountable business models from the margins to the mainstream.

But two years since the SDGs were adopted, despite seeing remarkable progress in some areas and regions, the progress is not fast enough, sufficiently scaled or equitably distributed.

We cannot continue with business as usual. We need to embrace the power of purpose-driven businesses, in which pure profit alone is not the sole measure of success, but instead values become as important as value. We also need to move from mere government to open governance and transparency. To deliver this systemic change we need incentives to move markets to the long-term, and legal obligations for company directors to account for the environmental and social impact of the business. And we also need full transparency on ownership and taxation. We need government to work with business to create the frameworks which can deliver systemic change.

Business can thrive in the long-term if we have good government, which in turn helps to set the frameworks for tax and regulation that can deliver sustainable development. With functioning systems that fight public and private corruption and make government—and business—more accountable to citizens and consumers, we can secure the resources and capacity required to serve people’s needs; to develop infrastructure, invest in science and technology, and be open to the robust debates and public participation that are the essence of a well-functioning polity.

And the good news is that momentum is building within business to tackle the source of the challenges, around corruption, transparency, tax evasion. OpenOwnership, for example, was created by a consortium of leading transparency organisations with the support of the private sector, including The B Team. It provides public access to information in open data on who owns 1.9 million companies from 24 countries.In addition, The B Team’s new partnership with the Open Government Partnership, which recently published a new report on winning back trust, will support private sector efforts for increased transparency in business and governments worldwide.

We continue to review options and opportunities for strategic collaboration and dialogue with peers and other stakeholders to accelerate the pace of positive change: the WEF Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) and B20 efforts are good examples. Such collaborative efforts will help restore public trust by advocating key enablers for beneficial ownership transparency, open contracting and protection of civic space.

These efforts represent a good start, but we are only scratching the surface of the change needed. Working together, we need to create the enabling conditions to break out of the current model and drive real solutions to the underlying challenges we face. With the SDGs, we already have our roadmap for shared purpose. Now we need to act with urgency to implement them.

What better way to rebuild trust than with purpose?