‘Purpose must come before profits’ say business leaders at conference on inclusive economies

These were some of the big questions raised during this year’s Trust conference, a two-day annual event organised by Thomson Reuters to promote media freedom and champion human rights reporting under the theme of ‘inclusive economies’ that ignited debate on how to tackle modern slavery, gender discrimination, LGBT rights, the climate emergency and fake news.  

Opening the event, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation, Antonio Zappulla spoke of the turbulent times we live in, from the technological innovation divide to rampant inequality around the world, made worse by climate change, misinformation, exclusion and oppression. He summed up his introduction with: ‘As global trust in government is declining, people will turn to business, and CEOs will need to consider their impact on the environment, ensure suppliers are treated fairly and that there is gender equity in their business. Workers and consumers, 40% of whom will be millennials by 2020, want companies to grow as businesses and fix society. A fair economic system is one that doesn’t rely on slave labour.’ 

The event was packed full of ‘change-makers’ who gave the most powerful speeches and quotes of the conference and showed that activists are coming up with the solutions to the world’s problems. Ahmad Nawaz, shot by the Taliban at his school when he was 14 in a devastating attack that killed his brother, was one of the most inspirational voices as he spoke of dedicating his time to striving for the right of all children everywhere to be educated. He now runs a foundation that runs education projects and believes this is key to unlocking inequality, he said: ‘Use your voice to shine a light on the problems in society that are oppressing us the most.’

In other emotional accounts from the frontline, photographers Josh Haner and Lisa Kristine told the stories behind their photographs that document abuses to people and the planet. Haner, a photographer for The New York Times, has travelled to many countries, from Greenland to Niger to make the impact of climate change proximate to readers, whilst freelancer Kristine’s harrowing body of work captured over 10 years exposes the true horror of human trafficking, modern slavery and child labour. Haner spoke of the climate refugees he has met in the process, ‘In West Africa, fickle rains, drought and hotter temperatures are affecting farmers and their crops, leaving children malnourished and forcing people to migrate’ and adds that 50 – 200 million people could be displaced due to climate change by 2050 according to UN estimates. Kristine makes us all think about our responsibility as consumers as she says, ‘We all knowingly, or unknowingly participate in slavery every day,’ focusing on an image of a child carrying a stone heavier than his own body weight at a brick kiln in Nepal. She spoke of the enslaved children thrown into the waters of Lake Volta to untangle fishing nets and risk death in the process as most have never been taught to swim, and says ‘There is no value in the person themselves, just what they can earn – they are disposable.’

The topic of Modern Slavery was explored further by Monique Villa, author of ‘Slaves Among us’ and a short film showing that booming industries and the West’s overconsumption of goods keep production lines running at a cost, a human cost and fuel a cycle of exploitation. Survivor of child labour Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, spoke of working 18 hour shifts, 30 days a month, and being kicked by her supervisor at the age of 12 years old in a factory where she worked with her younger brother who was just 10. They both had to work because it was the only way to feed their family. She told the audience: ‘Don’t feel sad when you hear workers are starving… make yourself angry and speak up.’ It was a poignant moment for her when she learned that workers had rights. She said: ‘I didn’t know I had any rights, when I learned about labour laws I thought this was beautiful. It opened my eyes, we need these jobs but we want dignity.’ She has been campaigning and advocating for workers’ rights ever since. 

The conference was packed full of delegates and speakers from the business community and there was a consensus from much of the discussion that despite the rise of modern slavery and the erosion of our environment, business leaders are paying attention to these problems. Speakers gave evidence of companies taking action on the Paris Climate agreement for example, both in an effort to respond to consumer demands and because today’s social and climate crises are emergencies that need urgent solutions, and there are many examples of CEOs making pledges to put purpose at the centre of business in recent years.  

On a panel discussing the role of corporates in addressing the problems in their supply chains, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, CEO and founder of the Coalition for inclusive capitalism, said: ‘I became ‘woke’ as my children would say, after the 2008 financial crisis when I started looking at how the system had failed so many people. The inequality today in the USA is not sustainable, if it continues we have to accept capitalism is not too big to fail. I work with corporations to bring them to a point where they are not focused solely on profit, but to recognise the purpose of a company should be to profitably solve the problems of people and planet. Companies need to be sustainable and strong to gain the trust of their customers. We can create a race to the top on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’ 

Also on this panel Mohamed Amersi, Charman of Inclusive Ventures Group, talked of the need to fix capitalism: ‘The challenge is not to abolish, but to humanise capitalism. Coporate and political leadership needs to be bold, decisive in transforming political and financial society’s meritocracy, treating women with respect and dignity, providing seed capital for future generations, funding business ventures ethically and transparently. Bring impact on people and planet and purpose to the heart of decision making, with profits coming last.’

The Fairtrade Foundation was proud to support this conference as media partner. 

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