Last week saw hundreds of the world’s political and business leaders descend on the Alpine ski resort of Davos for the annual World Economic Forum jamboree.
They arrived to a deep blanket of snow that provided a very convenient metaphor for the seemingly insurmountable problems that they were gathered to address.
Christine Lagarde arrived to boost the financial firepower of the IMF. Angela Merkel, George Soros, Ban Ki-moon and Timothy Geithner all delivered their views on the state of the global economy, while David Cameron pulled no punches in his address to the main congress hall on the state of Eurozone.
Meanwhile, Bill Gates urged the G20 to keep world hunger on the agenda despite the financial crisis and pledged $750m to the global Aids fund. It was a standout moment in a week that saw much discussion about the evolving role of business in society and the need for a more responsible form of capitalism.
Somewhat ironically given the concentration of billionaires in Davos, “income disparity” topped the list of risks that WEF members expected to see this year and it was evident that many of those gathered were mindful of the groundswell of dissatisfaction from those outside the elite enclave – and the need for new solutions.
And if they needed a reminder, the #Occupy movement had also come to town for the week. A small group of Swiss, Austrian and German protestors had set up camp just outside the secure zone, complete with igloos and anti-capitalist banners, to provide a voice of dissent.
I visited the camp twice, once with a broadcast team from the UK, and while their base was modest and they were few in number, they made a powerful call for a fundamental change in the way global business operates.
Of course, not everyone in the WEF secure zone was listening but several business leaders took the opportunity to show they are well along this path already.
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever and co-chair of this year’s WEF is ambitiously reshaping his business to deliver a more sustainable future and talked about the need for corporations such as his to take a more positive role in society.
As Gillian Tett reported in the Financial Times, Daniel Vasella, chief executive of Novartis said that his company is explicit about its determination to pursue social goals, rather than just focus on shareholder value.
Elsewhere, Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and CEO of Alcoa, said that businesses could no longer pretend to be good corporate citizens when they are not, or they “will be quickly found out”.
Statements such as these during Davos – the top table for world leaders - show an increasing commitment from some CEOs to address the social, commercial and environmental shifts that are happening, particularly the corrosive effects of rising youth unemployment that dominated many of the sessions at the WEF.
They also suggest that for some forward thinking organisations, social responsibility is becoming core to the business strategy, not simply an adjunct. As our client David Jones, global CEO of Havas, told the BBC during Davos: "What we are seeing every single day is the power of people to make leaders behave the way they want them to be."
Two weeks before the World Economic Forum, the Prime Minister David Cameron called for a more responsible form of capitalism. With CEOs such as these already taking action, there’s a chance the Davos protestors may just get their wish.
Nick Giles is co-founder of Seven Hills.