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Can Companies Be Good Global Citizens?

By Richard Winter, Group Company Secretary, General Counsel, Six Continents PLC.

Speech delivered at The Foreign Policy Centre Fringe Event, Labour Party Conference 2001

The cynics among you – if there are any such people at a party political conference – would expect me to say "yes". And so, I hope, would those of you who have some knowledge of the inside workings of companies such as ours.

In fact, I go much further than the question put to this meeting implies. Not only can companies be good global citizens, but they must be; it is in their interests to be, and very, very many are, to great effect.

What do we mean by being a global citizen? With the advent of world travel, fast electronic links and global markets, the world has shrunk – you have heard the phrase "global village" - and it is now effectively a community in which large corporations should act as citizens, with the same types of duties and responsibilities that individuals carry in society. I refer to communities in the broadest possible sense, embracing both the immediate community where a business is located and also the diversity of cultures in the context of which a business operates.

Being a good global citizen, from a corporate point of view, means taking a complete approach to the way in which we do business. Whilst our initial raison d'être is to make profits and to be able to pay our employees and shareholders, modern companies simply cannot afford to be purely mercenary in their mission. We have to embrace diversity; we have to be sensitive to the different cultures of our colleagues and customers, and also pay heed to the environments in which we operate on a global basis.

Taking account of our employees' needs as individuals, the fragility of the communities in which we work and the responsibilities of our suppliers' work practices as well as our own, are vital steps in becoming a good global citizen. But the crucial aspect of such an approach is not to view these policies as bolt-on extras, added to appease current opinion, or to boost customer ratings; on the contrary it is essential that companies actually embed such good practice into their daily operations and strategies.

At Six Continents (like many other companies) we started several years ago formally defining corporate values to encapsulate the ideal of the way we want to operate into the business. These values include "Behaving with integrity", "Valuing and trusting our people" and "Respecting our communities". And we genuinely pride ourselves on our relationships with the communities where our hotels, restaurants and bars operate, with the support we give to our customers and our employees in their local areas. We're also proud of our environmental record, ensuring that we manage energy and water in a pro-active way. Our environmental initiatives extend from energy-saving measures, to beach clean-ups and children's events, covering not just the big cost-saving areas, but also very many smaller initiatives which are actually very important to local communities. In addition, we're looking at how our employees feel about the issues close to them – we have engaged in "stakeholder" consultation (employees, suppliers, customers, shareholders) for our community affairs programme, we work actively to retain our Investors in People accreditation and we're promoting diversity.

But in these difficult times there are more challenges ahead to which we all need to rise. Putting good practice in place is important, environmental initiatives are essential and listening to and understanding our stakeholders is vital. It's tempting for companies to let these things slip when we're faced with the financial costs of recession and economic problems. Now is the time for more global cooperation, not less. Companies will have to exercise more corporate global citizenship, more engagement with their communities and more cultural tolerance.

Our company delivers international services to almost one hundred countries, across diverse cultures, different languages and many ethnic and religious bases. We need to respect all of these through the values of the organisation, reflected in the quality of the service, and in the motivation of our diverse staff in providing consistently high quality to our customers.

Good practices should not be mere window-dressing, ticking boxes or paying lip service. They must be embodied into the values for which a company is prepared to stand. At Six Continents we're keen to learn and put best practice into action, but what I think is most important is that we remember that we still have further to go. It's great to point to our achievements, but there's no shame in identifying areas which we can improve upon. And the benefits of the impetus from focused and well-recognised benchmarking organisations such as Business in the Environment and Business in the Community, the FTSE4Good and Dow Jones World Sustainability Indices, in which we actively participate, is that we can now start to measure our achievements, and our shortcomings.

I hope that the new attention being paid to corporate social responsibility can continue despite the particularly difficult current political and economic pressures. Because not only can companies be good global citizens, but in my view, companies wishing to be successful in the medium to long term have no option but to be.