"Sustainability is absolutely good business"

JAMES ROBEY - Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Director, Capgemini Group. Capgemini has been honoured for the third year in a row as one of the most ethical organisations globally, recognising its longstanding commitment to companywide ethical leadership, compliance practices, and corporate social responsibility. Through its World’s Most Ethical Company designation, the Ethisphere Institute acknowledges those organisations that have had a material impact on the way business is conducted by fostering a culture of ethics and transparency at every level of the company.

An interview with James Robey, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Director at Capgemini Group

Ireneusz Białek: Why CSR as your professional interest?

James Robey: For 17 years now, I have held various posts in business. Some eight years ago I began looking more attentively at global trends such as natural resources scarcity and climate change, and my conclusion was that the challenges related to them would be critical for business in the decades to come. I felt I should be part of how business responds to such challenges and so asked the CEO of our UK business whether I could engage in this area called CSR by some. I myself tend not use the term as I find it slightly dated often with connotations of philanthropic pursuits. I prefer the phrase corporate responsibility andsustainability recognising the centrality of this topic for business success. Anyhow, the result of my request was approval to establish a sustainability programme in the UK, which ultimately led to me being asked to take responsibility for the agenda globally - an agenda which also now includes diversity and inclusion.

I.B.: Do you regret your choice? After all so many entrepreneurs think that business is not about changing the environment or dealing with diversity but generating profit.

J.R.: I suspect that those who really think that may well be out of business in the long term. The combination of the macro-scale factors and the global trends already mentioned and increasing concerns being raised by customers, means business have no choice but to address the pressing social and environmental challenges. On the other hand, and as a pragmatic realist, a lot can be achieved to make the business both more sustainable and more profitable at the same time.

I.B.: Are you not concerned that those who spend and invest too much in corporate responsibility programmes, even if that is profitable in terms of the company’s interest, may simply lose out on the market?

J.R.: No. I would rather say they will be the winners in the long run. When we talk, for instance, to our business partners, clients and stakeholders, it turns out that for them these topics are important and they appreciate our efforts for more sustainability.

I.B.: Do you mean Europe and the US, or further beyond?

J.R.: Already further on now, since sustainability is beginning to develop very rapidly outside of Euro-Atlantic culture. There are solid reasons for it, it is not just a fad that has come from the West. Take air pollution or access to drinking water which in some cities around the world is becoming a real barrier for companies operating there.

It’s interesting to consider our planetary ecosystem, its humankind that is producing pollutants, toxins, and mountains of rubbish and waste. Take humankind out of the equation and nature as such is sustainable. When a lion kills an antelope in a savannah, the whole of the antelope becomes food for other animals; when leaves fall in the autumn, they will make the forest soil fertile, and so on.  This view of sustainability is really exciting and the opportunity for innovation is immense.

I.B.: Is there a key question that you ask yourself when thinking about such innovation?

J.R.: Yes, how radical are we collectively prepared to be in the face of challenges we face.  The global footprint network has calculated that in 2015 we are collectively living a lifestyle that would require 1.5 planets of resources to sustain our consumption.  This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.  And that’s the average, if everyone was living a European lifestyle that lifestyle would require between 3 and 4 planets.

I.B.: What should be done so that companies accelerate their corporate responsibility and sustainability programmes?

J.R.: Uncertainty is the biggest barrier – and around sustainability there is a lot of uncertainty.  We know that resource scarcity is already a reality and will be an increasingly big challenge in the future; what we don’t know is exactly how that scarcity will play out and how the price of resources will evolve over time.  We know that the scientific consensus is that CO2 level are rising and that this is likely to lead to more extreme weather events in the future; however we don’t know when and exactly where.

For me, this is the point where a clear partnership is needed between governments and business.  We know that where there is certainly in the rules of system, businesses are very effective at responding – for example, following the ban in CFC gases following the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, businesses rapidly found alternatives to CFCs. 

In practical terms, we know that globally we need to abate carbon emissions.  Neither government nor business can achieve this alone; however a clear carbon price set by governments would certainly help businesses respond.  By creating certainty, businesses would then have a platform for investment and I believe innovation, creativity and also collaboration would follow.

I.B.: What are your forecasts concerning the nearest future of corporate sustainability?

J.R.: That is a very broad question, but let me answer by referring to the beginning of our conversation: I think the next few years will be absolutely critical.  On the one hand, business will have to address increasingly complex social and environmental challenges while also keeping an increasing focus on the longer-term realities of our changing eco-system. Without a comprehensive approach to the notions of corporate responsibility and sustainability, our future may turn out highly problematic.

I.B.: Thank you.