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Photos shows World Economic Forum meeting venue in the snow with flags

Insight

Taking a bite-sized approach to Davos' global problems

The annual gathering of the global elite for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos tends to focus attention on the big challenges facing the world: global poverty, growing inequality, and climate change. Thinks tanks, pressure groups and even some business leaders urge attendees to move away from business as usual and embrace transformational change.

by Helen Burley

The theme of this year’s meeting, Creating a shared future in a fractured world, speaks to some of the problems driving that need for change, and the WEF’s own Global Risks Report highlights the growing risk from the environmental impacts of business as usual.

But if businesses are committed to addressing these issues, what can they do?

Systemic problems

The focus on global-scale problems tends to generate calls for large-scale change to the economic system. Whether it’s changes to the indicators used to measure global progress, proposals to address the “circularity gap”, or global change to create a more equal society.

These are all well and good. And more than timely. But when it comes down to actually building a better working world (as one of the slogans calls for), it is going to take more than fine sentiments expressed in panel discussions.

Boardroom commitments

Global business leaders exert powerful influence within the global economy. But some of that power lies in the decisions they make and the policies they adopt within their own boardrooms.

Many have already made commitments to address climate change and related environmental issues, whether through carbon accounting, or policies to address the risks of deforestation in their supply chains. Members of the Consumer Goods Forum, for example, have committed to work towards zero net deforestation by 2020.

When Global Canopy’s Forest 500 project assessed the progress of the most influential companies involved in forest-risk commodity supply chains — those companies using or trading high volumes of soy, palm oil, timber, pulp and paper, beef or leather — it found that far too few had policies in place to address these risks.

And the 2017 assessment showed that leading financial institutions were continuing to fund companies despite their failure to address commodity-driven deforestation

Time for action

The World Economic Forum is, in part, about creating a narrative — a story about business making the world a better place. Business leaders should not only buy in to the narrative, but translate it into everyday action. And where better to start than with ensuring that some of the commitments to produce forest-risk commodities sustainably they have made on paper are implemented in practice.

Because putting a sustainability policy in place is important but only the first step in the process. The real challenge for companies is to put these policies into action and implement them across their entire operations.

Some of the leading companies — such as Danone, Marks & Spencer, and Mars — have done just that, with policies to address deforestation risks across commodity supply chains, with clear deadlines for implementation.

Some of the leading companies, such as Unilever, are also playing an important role in encouraging others to follow suit.

But the first step is often the policy. And it is a step that those companies which do not yet have policies in place urgently need to make.

Photo: GovernmentZA via flickr.comcreative commons licence