Nestlé’s 6th annual shared value forum took place last week at the Nestlé research and development facility located just outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. With corn fields growing close in around the facility and in the shadow of the majestic Alps, the day marked a perfect opportunity to take stock of where creating shared value started from, where we are now, and most importantly where we’re heading with this work. With over 200 multi-sector guests in attendance, here are my three key reflections from the event:
From justification to expectation…
It was not that long ago that most conversations about the role of companies in society hovered around having to justify and convince skeptical audiences that it was, in fact, a good idea for companies to address social issues as business opportunities. What a shift in dialogue we’ve seen though through the efforts of many groups and platforms pushing new conceptions of the corporation in society! Nestlé’s Chairman Peter Brabeck called creating shared value a “well-established idea” and the representative from event co-host, UNCTAD, referred to the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as “business opportunities that represent our shared goals for society”. Panel members across the day accepted the need for private sector engagement in social issues as an assumed starting point. But, far past this Nestlé-specific environment though, I’ve seen this same shift in dialogue at the Clinton Global Initiative and other events. This is great news and a sign of progress.
…but, the “how” remains challenging…
Yet, the positive progress on assuming corporate involvement in solving social issues has given way to the stark reality that effectively working on these issues is still hard work. As Nestlé’s CEO Paul Bulcke put it simply on Thursday, “It’s much easier to have the ‘what’ than the ‘how’?” And on this issue of the how, we continue to see the laborious process of companies figuring out how to most effectively embed shared value practices across their businesses. Surely, their instincts to match their competitors’ efforts and the rejuvenating experience of seeing their own successes will justify further progress on shared value. But, this process can be frustrating when practitioners want to see results and scale quickly. We continue to share dozens of examples accessible in this community to continue providing the latest thinking and inspiration needed.
…and tools to improve “how” are coming but slowly.
During the topical discussions on water, rural development and nutrition, a consistent theme was on the complexity of defining shared goals as well as effectively measuring outcomes and impact for the business and society. The water panel and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter’s comments on water provided the most pointed examples of this frustration with the President proclaiming that “…the cost of inaction (on water) is much higher than the cost of action. It gets more expensive each day.” Yet, frustration with the complex state of measurement (measurement systems , disparate reporting organizations / approaches, and lack of investor engagement) points towards our own ongoing action agenda. Our recent work on health outcomes measurement in partnership with ~20 cross-sector actors (find our measurement resources here), efforts to align our work with existing measurement organizations, and research on shared value and the investment community will help make progress on these key challenges facing the field.
Thanks to Nestlé for continuing to hold this important annual event and spurring the ongoing dialogue.