Students, like me, have a privilege; and that is, the privilege of inexperience. The information we absorb, the values we develop, feed our biases, assumptions, aspirations; but these are often works-in-progress, unverified, as youth and circumstances prevent us from putting them to the test, no matter how eager we might be. Hence the luxury of inexperience, of a mind that lies open, flexible, unconstrained by the chains of the "same old" rhetoric and that is thirsty for more. Young professionals in the-making, if you like, seeking inputs to define what we would like our future selves to be. Or at least, I like to think about it this way.
Recently, a group of Lancaster University Management School students and I were offered a unique opportunity to have a peek inside the real world of business, the one at play beyond the borders of management textbooks and undergraduate internships. So off we flew to Montreux, Switzerland, as guests to the annual Liaison Delegates meeting of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The only students on site - talking about privilege again.
Formed over 20 years ago, the WBCSD proposes to be a platform for major businesses to explore, discuss and advocate on sustainable business practices, from addressing environmental impact to re-defining the overall role of business in society. Their aim? To advance science-based, long-term sustainable development on a global scale, by collaborating at a pre-competitive level among businesses, industries and with relevant third parties, from governments to NGOs. They aim to embody businesses growing effort and societal expectation to put their might, their reach and their capabilities to create value that looks beyond the traditional bottom line, and the closed doors of the board room. A global business leverage, proposing to pull in the right, and necessary, direction; without neglecting the profit motive in the process, of course.
This, at least, is what it says on the tin; and I would be lying if I said that, when submitting my application to attend, I was not sceptical about it. As a strong, passionate believer in the duty and potential business have to be a force for good, to promote progress and wealth that benefits all, I felt I had seen too much negative behaviour from the business community to just accept the intentions of the WBCSD at face value. Since I had started my path in the business world, I felt I had seen too much incrementalism, too much lobbying for the wrong reasons, too many greenwashing attempts, too much unwillingness to adopt sustainable models when these involve taking a few hits on the bottom line. Too much of that rhetoric that goes "Sustainability? Yes, but only as long as it makes us money, quick". Too many bad apples which, at least in my eyes, made me question the sweetness of even the healthy-looking ones. I loved the idea of the WBCSD and, above all, the mission it embodies, the exact same mission that brought me closer to the business world in the first place. But like Saint Thomas, I had to see it with my own eyes, experience it in the flesh, put some initial layers of meat on the bones of my assumptions.
Saying that attending the WBCSD meeting was insightful for me would be an understatement. Over the course of the event, I saw for myself how a business council of such magnitude operates and coordinates at a global level; I had the chance to listen to industry experts sharing their knowledge and experiences, and voicing concerns that very much resonated with mine; I witnessed conversations that uncovered the depth and width of the impact businesses can make, and the direction they are headed towards. But more than that, this experience showed me the impact people can make; the power of individuals, often hidden behind the corporations, emerged and their personal actions, values and leverage appeared to me to be the true drivers of change.
Perhaps, attending this conference did not revolutionise my sentiments completely; that would have been too big and too unreasonable to expect. Am I still sceptical? If the assumption behind scepticism is that of looking at the role and intentions of businesses critically, then I shall remain sceptical. I do not feel this is some cynical generalisation of mine, or some inability to see the undeniable potential and the growing efforts businesses are putting into being forces for good. But rather, this scepticism rests on the notion that such conduct should not be taken for granted, nor accepted blindly. There are questions that, at least to me, remain unanswered - and often unasked of business. Why so little? Why so late? Why so incrementally, when we need radical change? How do you square the circles of businesses often giving with one hand and taking with the other? What if sustainability stops making profit-sense? Would you take one for the team then?
Giving big business the benefit of the doubt, and being wrong about it, would be too great a risk for me to happily take. Better safe than sorry, some would say; but questioning does not automatically mean misbelieving.
But attending the WBCSD event has not left me unchanged. After wrestling with what we experienced inside my mind, the truly important question I find myself asking is: "Am I more hopeful in what business can do than I was yesterday?" And the answer, again, is "Yes". I saw concern, passion, and drive on the faces and lips of real people, and not on the sterile, copy-and-paste mission statements of companies. I saw the willingness of individuals to drive change, and bring their businesses along with them, rather than the other way round. For the presence of bad apples does not necessarily mean that the whole batch has been compromised; and even the bruised ones can find to have some sweetness inside and save the lot.
Can business be a force for good? Undoubtedly it can - as long as the people behind it commit to it. That's why for students like me, inexperience is not only a privilege, it is also a responsibility. A duty to watch our beliefs rise and crumble, to build principles, to make assumptions, to ask questions, without accepting the "same old, same old" a priori. We have a responsibility to use our inexperience wisely, to help us decide in which direction we want push, and with what intensity; and embrace it, challenge it and learn from it, to become ourselves the agents of the change we want to see. Because perhaps the all point is not diffusing scepticism today, but fighting what caused in the first place tomorrow.