Bulcke was part of a panel discussing the role of business in tackling global social challenges, such as climate change and sustainable production.
“Should business lead the social agenda? I would say very clearly, no, it should not lead the agenda, but it should be part of it. It’s a nuance that’s very important,” Bulcke said. “…When a company like Nestlé goes about its activity, in the longer term perspective, then whatever it does will create value for the society at large.”
He also said he would like business to push back more often when it is accused of being a major cause of problems in the world.
More impact, more responsibility
Also on the panel, DSM’s CEO Feike Sijbesma agreed that companies should not take the lead on issues like climate change and sustainable resource use, but said they did have a responsibility to act.
“We are part of those issues automatically, because we are part of society,” he said, adding that companies have become more powerful over the past 50 to 100 years because of their increasingly global impact. “I think if you have more and more impact, you should show more and more responsibility as well.”
“Companies do not have the right to regulate things, and rightly so. But companies can influence governments by saying ‘if you go a step forward we are behind you. We even stimulate you to take a step forward’,” he said.
Sijbesma insisted that some of DSM’s actions, such as giving away its patents to the World Food Programme, had nothing to do with making money, but were about doing what was right for society.
The case for more ethical business
Alongside the CEOs, UN Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark said: “There’s quite an undertow of business that needs to be brought along by the people who do get it […] and do see the role of business in society.”
She cited progress made over the past few years on decoupling palm oil production from deforestation – and urged similar progress for other commodities like soy and beef. Increasingly, ethical sourcing can be beneficial for business too, she said.
“Consumers want to buy things they feel good about buying. …Pragmatic business that gets with it and sees that consumers are changing – they’re more aware, they are more concerned about the state of the world – and try to be part of the change that we all want to see, I think that’s very, very positive. It can be a win-win,” she said.
Triple bottom line
Bulcke said that if a company wants to be around in 150 years, creating value for shareholders was just one part of the value it creates.
“You need long-term relationships… You are trying to link up with society in a positive way, and it makes business sense,” he said.
DSM’s Sijbesma said: “We have a triple bottom line: People, planet, profit. …Normally in society we value companies especially on the economic performance and we look a little bit lesser to their performance on the people and planet dimensions. The question is whether that is correct, and I don’t think so.”