Commissioner Walstrom, Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to start by thanking Dr Brundtland for such an inspiring and thought-provoking lecture. I know I speak on behalf of everyone present in saying how much we appreciated everything she had to say.
Listening to Dr Brundtland's remark that 'in the modern world, viruses and bacteria travel almost as fast as money', and her insistence that we 'need a fundamental break from business as usual', reminded me of the importance of wisdom in our society. To be wise was once just about the ultimate personal quality, and essential for anyone responsible for a great enterprise, whether political, academic, military or commercial. Whatever you were doing, if your decisions affected the lives of others then being clever, and good at the job, were important, but not sufficient, qualifications. Wisdom would also be a non-negotiable part of the job description. But, more recently, I fear it has become rather an under-rated commodity. Financial acuity, ability as a communicator, the capacity to innovate and the possession of "change-management skills" would now all probably come higher up the average headhunter's list of desirable attributes in a Chief Executive or Chairman of a major company.
This is, perhaps, understandable, but it doesn't help when it comes to sustainability! If we are to make a successful transition to sustainable development in the 21st century we really are going to need a business community led by people who are wise, as well as clever and able.
We all know that a clever business is competitive, efficient and innovative. It recruits the best and brightest people and makes best use of their knowledge and skills. It also encourages creativity and keeps a sharp focus on what it does best, in order to create wealth for society and value for its shareholders.
A wise business will certainly be clever and able. But it will also take a broader, more holistic, view of what is really involved in creating wealth and long-term value. In doing so it will be more likely to meet the rising expectations of an increasingly affluent, confident and well-educated public. As consumers, this public is learning how to exercise power - how to reward those companies which meet its expectations, and how to punish those who fail in that respect, however clever they may be. And I suspect we can all think of examples of companies whose cleverness has been their undoing.
Businesses that think hard about these issues, that are prepared to take a long-term view, or to take a precautionary approach when others rush in, can find themselves unpopular with their peers. And also, of course, dramatically out of favour with major shareholders. Accepting that climate change must be regarded as a reality, that conditions in some developing world factories are unacceptable, that many marine fisheries are unsustainable, that a bio-accumulative chemical should be phased out in the absence of absolute proof that it causes harm, or that some agricultural practices are unsustainable - saying any of these things can bring short-term difficulties and varying degrees of unpleasantness.
Even developments that you might think would be wholly positive, such as developing fuel cells for cars, building offshore wind farms, looking at alternatives to peat use in gardens, developing hydrocarbon refrigerants, or even just insisting on higher environmental standards from suppliers, can provoke a reaction from the 'business as usual' brigade. I know, because I've had more than my fair share of it over the years! But wise businesses recognise that making up their own minds about what is right, and setting their own high standards, is the only way to move towards sustainability in a world obsessed with the short-term.
One of the key benefits of getting on the right side of these issues is that companies who do so can build and protect a vital long-term asset - trust. We all know whom we trust and whom we don't, and that applies as much to businesses as it does to individuals. But there seems to be a lot of cynicism nowadays about the motives of companies or institutions.
Companies that lead the way in these areas generate trust among their stakeholders, and they raise the bar for everyone else. In doing so they become an instrument of good governance. They find themselves, even if it is sometimes slightly to their surprise, in the front line of the drive towards an ethical and more sustainable future - which, of course, is absolutely where they should be. This may not, however, be an entirely comfortable experience. It will certainly raise difficult questions about what sustainability means in practice, it may bring disagreements with people who take a short-term approach and it can lead to unrealistic expectations. But none of those who have made the transition and have established a clear set of corporate values to reflect the importance of sustainability have, at least to my knowledge, ever regretted doing so.
But how does such a company, however well-intentioned, operate in a country where a corrupt administration does not enforce the laws? I know this is a difficult subject, and I hasten to add that I do not have any country, or indeed any company, in mind when I pose that rhetorical question. There is no shortage of acknowledged examples of the sort of thing I have in mind, from the poaching of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea to the illegal logging of various rainforests, and from the illegal trade in birds, reptiles, orchids and cacti to the smuggling of CFCs in flagrant breach of the Montreal Protocol. But those who know most about this issue tell me that these are just the most visible examples of a deeply unpleasant phenomenon.
In one of their excellent reviews of the global situation, Transparency International point out that it is the countries that have the best record of open and transparent governance that do best economically, environmentally and socially. In effect, corruption is as much a development issue as a moral issue. It can distort the entire decision making process on investment projects and other commercial transactions and, in turn, the very fabric of societies. Ultimately, it can lead to serious social unrest.
For businesses, corruption creates an uneven playing field in bidding for contracts or resources. It adds to costs and carries serious reputational risks. It undermines confidence and discourages anything but the most short-term of investments. It is certainly bad for the environment and entirely unsustainable. For the business community, a corrupt society is a deeply unattractive place to do business.
I do appreciate that we have to be careful here - which is perhaps why this subject is so rarely raised in public. It is often said that different cultures have different perspectives on the issue, and that different organisations and different countries draw different laws in the sand. But I find myself agreeing strongly with Transparency International when they say that (and I quote) '….the deeper truth is that legitimate investment and corruption do not mix. Corruption destroys billions of scarce dollars every year. It is the dry rot undermining aid. It distorts development, it frightens away investors and it perverts societies.'
Transparency International also point out that fighting corruption is the business of everyone: governments, the private sector and civil society. That is why I was so pleased to learn that the UK Foreign Office is in the forefront of a new initiative, working with the US State Department, leading companies and some non-governmental organisations. The intention, as I understand it, is to define how all the participants should act when they find themselves in difficult situations of conflict or corruption. I shall be very interested to see the outcome of this unique partnership and hope it may encourage other innovative groupings to tackle issues of common concern.
And I want to make a personal plea at this point. Of course we shouldn't over-estimate the capacity of even the largest and most powerful companies to achieve change. But nor should we under-estimate what they can do when they put their minds to it. I am getting just a little fed up at hearing companies talk about what they can't do. The stakes, as far as I am concerned, are high enough that I would like them to try just a bit harder. Because if we don't build sustainable societies we aren't going to have sustainable businesses! And when I hear that something is beyond the capacity of a particular company my first reaction is to ask whether they have thought about who else has a vested interest in achieving the same aim, and whether they shouldn't be looking to work in partnership with those people to tackle the problem.
As global companies experience the consumer-driven requirement to set higher standards for all their operations, I think they will find that operating in partnership with their stakeholders has a lot to offer, not least in setting standards and verifying performance. Building and maintaining such partnerships requires a high degree of openness, flexibility and willingness to be held accountable. As Dr Brundtland pointed out, 'the best partnerships are often those forged between unorthodox entities', and I am increasingly hearing about forward-thinking companies and NGOs working successfully together to tackle common problems. This makes sense and this is something I have been trying to pursue relentlessly with my BLF for the past eleven years. They have complementary skills, they share many goals and they can achieve things by working together that they could not contemplate on their own. And a company that takes such a partnership approach will not be short of help. For example, my International Business Leaders Forum is taking forward a number of initiatives with the UN, NGOs and the international corporate sector in precisely this area. So - before you say you can't do things, do please at least think about sitting down and talking to other people who might want to move in the same direction.
Making such partnerships work requires a degree of humility, some open-mindedness and, to return to where I started, the wisdom to see beyond the short term. These are the kind of qualities that we aim to encourage on the seminars run by my Business and Environment Programme, as well as a proper understanding of the meaning of sustainability. If we succeed, then all the work of the Cambridge Programme for Industry, the Management Committee and the Core Faculty will have been thoroughly worthwhile but I just want to end on a somewhat controversial note.
I have long subscribed to the catastrophe theory that humanity only wakes up to what it is doing to the environment when confronted by global tragedies. For example, you need only look at the way in which we have managed our fish stocks. Cod stocks off Newfoundland collapsed through intense over-fishing, and have still not recovered after eight years. Yet even now, we are doing the same to fish stocks off South Africa, in the North Sea, and elsewhere, as if what happened in Newfoundland was somehow not a matter of public record.
So I am afraid I end up believing that we will inevitably see more catastrophe, and only then will people realise what they have been doing to upset that critical ecological and social balance on which we all depend.
And that is what I fear about the whole concept of "globalisation". I simply do not believe the assurances of those who tell us that the forces it unleashes can all be constrained within a framework of proper regulation. Globalisation brings enormous problems for the developing - and indeed, developed - countries, whatever the commercial opportunities, and in many cases the lack of attention to sustainability will threaten the stability and long term prospects of fragile communities and countries.
Unless we can find ways of achieving a much wider acceptance that responsible corporate behaviour includes the need to address these issues comprehensively, in partnerships with Governments and civil society, then I fear that the whole concept of globalisation may ultimately prove to be so deeply flawed as to be unsustainable.
In this, as in all other matters, we need wisdom to understand the importance of balance. If you go beyond that point where things are still in balance, you will inevitably create an equal and opposite reaction. It is an unpleasant truth, but a truth all the same. It seems to me that there is a desperate risk that the forces of globalisation are already dangerously out of balance, and I'll lay you a bet that in twenty years I'll be proved right!