Gather round the campfire: Putting corporate purpose into action for a fairer future

There is a growing recognition that a focus on corporate purpose can align government, company, investor and other stakeholder interests around long-term goals such as net zero and help ensure that these are delivered in a fair way.  On 30th March Sustainability First hosted its ‘Fairness in utilities’ conference to explore this issue and what the purpose agenda means for both companies and government in sectors such as energy, water and communications.

Following opening remarks on how we are in a decisive decade for the climate and for fairness, Sustainability First set out the work that we have done in this area through our ground breaking Fair for the Future project.

Professor Colin Mayer, who has led much of the international thinking on corporate purpose, provided the first keynote address.  Professor Mayer set out how the current company / regulatory interface was inefficient and how a focus on corporate purpose on all sides can help ensure utilities earn profits from solving problems, not creating them.  He emphasised the need for new regulatory approaches on long-term issues to protect the interests of future generations and highlighted the practical steps that can be taken to get public purpose adopted, noting that purposeful regulation is already being carried out in Scotland where it is a game changer.

Our first panel explored what companies can do to put purpose into action and what regulation can do to help or hinder this process.  We heard from Dame Polly Courtice of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), and her experiences as a Non-Executive Director at Anglian Water, from Sul Alli, Director of Strategy and Customer Services at UKPN, and Rachel McEwan, Chief Sustainability Officer at SSE.

All of the speakers demonstrated the need for a defined purpose in business. There was widespread agreement that now is the time to reset the system.  Participants discussed how the changes outlined were not a leap in the dark; some have already been put into practice.  Action is needed not theorising.

The Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, gave the second key-note address.   Welcoming our report, she recognised that Government can do more to foster strategic co-ordination and expertise sharing across regulators, including developing a whole consumer perspective.  Coherent and consistent regulatory duties across sectors, should help in this regard and a future policy paper would explore pathways to greater collaboration.

Sustainability First Associate Martin Hurst then took the audience through the conclusions from our latest major report on Regulation for the Future.  A panel discussion on the implications of purpose from a regulatory, government and investor perspective followed.  Rachel Fletcher, in her penultimate day as CEO of Ofwat, opened the panel and was joined by Giles Stevens, Director of Policy at the National Infrastructure Commission, and Lawrence Slade, CEO of the Global Infrastructure Investors Association (GIIA).

There was wide agreement that regulators should concentrate on what only they can do, making room for regional and local actors to grow, and the importance of community involvement. There was consensus that focusing on public purpose does provide a way forward in dealing with disruption.  And a widespread view that greater collaboration between companies and regulators would be beneficial in dealing with difficult issues, whilst accepting that independent regulators will continue to have a clear role in terms of monopoly activities.  There was support for common regulatory duties and cross-sector Strategic Policy Statements to ensure greater join-up and people centred approaches. 

The suggestion that ‘campfire’ discussions between policy makers, regulators, companies, investors and civil society groups are needed to build trust, work through trade-offs and help ensure long-term interests aren’t kicked into the long grass resonated with nearly all the speakers.  It’s clearly time to come together and gather round the fire. 

The video recording of the conference can be found here and the conference summary can be found here.