This autumn, Danone celebrates the 40th anniversary of the founding speech the then CEO Antoine Riboud gave in Marseille at the national convention of the employers’ association. He was asked to share his thoughts on reconciling business growth with corporate social responsibility, and took the opportunity to give an inspiring, ground-breaking speech, in which he defined corporate responsibility and laid the foundations for what would become Danone’s “dual project”. The 1972 speech was given in a context of social tension and growing environmental awareness. But it also quickly became the cornerstone of Danone’s commitment to these issues, and is still a reference that inspires the company’s choices when it faces crises or looks for new opportunities.
A response to the events of 1968
Corporate responsibility does not end at the factory gate or the office door. The jobs a business creates are central to the lives of employees, and the energy and raw materials we consume change the shape of our planet. […] It is clear that growth should no longer be an end in itself, but rather a tool used to serve the quality of life without ever being detrimental to it.
In a few sentences, Antoine Riboud delivered the heart of his speech: growth cannot and should not take place without having corporate social responsibility constantly in mind. This idea was disturbingly new at the time, as he was the first CEO ever to state that the human (and environmental) aspect of the company must be taken into account. But it was put forward in a context that demanded this way of thinking. In 1972, the Glorious Thirty Years that had given Europe economic growth and full employment were coming to an end. The Limits to Growth, the provocative report commissioned by the Club of Rome, which advocated a zero-growth economy in order to preserve our resources, had just been published. Economic prosperity was no longer the only horizon and, four years earlier, the students and working classes had demonstrated their rejection of the consumer society and their wish for more meaning and justice. Antoine Riboud felt that these claims essentially concerned the companies, because of their impact on their employees and, more widely, on society. Danone thus chose to respond by defining a “dual project” that still inspires the company’s action 40 years later: a dual commitment to successful business and social progress. In 1974, this orientation took concrete form, with the issuing of five recommendations that expressed it in specific policies:
1. Attune staff levels to needs, and reduce job insecurity.
2. Develop wage and compensation policies that provide incentives consistent with the situation and environment of the business unit.
3. Develop the potential and contributions of executives, supervisors and all staff members in accordance with their aspirations and the needs of business.
4. Simultaneously improve working conditions and business efficiency with the support of employees.
5. Extend and improve communication with employees and their representatives. As BSN (which would become Danone in 1994) was undergoing difficulties in its glass activities due to the oil crisis, the dual project thus worked as a guide to handle the human dimension of the crisis as well as possible. It has continued to do so ever since, while adapting to the environmental issues that have now arisen.
The dual project inspires Danone’s adaptation to a fast-changing world
The world is facing challenges that require large-scale solutions: how to feed 9 billion inhabitants; how to rethink economic development in the poorest countries; how to rethink value creation; how to act in favour of economic ecosystems so that all links in the supply chain can benefit; how to reconnect companies with the public; how to preserve our environment, etc. For corporate companies, finding the solutions to these challenges comes down to answering one question: what role should the companies endorse in a world afflicted by multiple crises that finds its model in complete exhaustion? Danone has been constantly looking for ideas that would help answer the question. The creation of the three following funds are a good example of its approach:
1.danone.communities was created to help build and foster social businesses;
2. the Danone Ecosystem fund aims at reinforcing the company’s ecosystem by providing appropriate help to all its partners, especially the small ones, as a direct answer to the 2008 crisis;
3. Livelihoods gives the fund partners the opportunity to generate carbon with strong social impact.
All three of them aim at addressing the challenges of the 21st century from a business, social and environmental point of view. But Danone’s commitment goes further than supporting these funds: responsibility is becoming one of the main lines in its business strategy, irrigating all its activities. Throughout the last decades, and even more during the last few years, the need to integrate corporate responsibility (in social, economical, environmental and nutritional terms) into the very core of business strategies has become increasingly urgent. Taking this responsibility into account does not merely mean taking action in a handful of areas. It means truly rethinking the way we do things, the way we produce, the way we buy, the way we sell, the way we interact with the public and with our partners and stakeholders. It means redefining the whole system and inventing new ways that are both responsible and profitable: in a word, sustainable. Multinationals are not philanthropists: at the end of the day, their raison d’être is to distribute profits to their shareholders. In this context, there can be no social innovation without financial profitability. This is what the speech of Marseille and the dual project are about: defining two values, successful business and social progress, and doing everything possible to achieve them, given the specific challenges of the time. Sometimes the focus has to be more on successful business; at others it can be more on social innovation. But both will always be there. They are a compass that has been guiding the company’s choices for 40 years now, and will continue to do so for the challenges to come.
Antoine Riboud concluded his speech by saying:
At the start of my analysis, I proposed that we rise to the following challenge: placing industry at the service of people; reconciling industry and Man. […] I strongly believe that we can be both efficient and human on condition that, to quote the poet René Char, ‘we plan as a strategist and act as a primitive’. We should lead our companies with our hearts as much as our heads, and we should not forget that while the energy resources on earth are limited, those of Man are infinite if he finds the motivation.
Forty years later, these words are still appropriate: change only requires willpower and motivation. Change needs to become a strategy.