« It’s when the going gets really tough that the dual project proves how effective it is. »

Summary

With Danone, Jérôme Tubiana is looked on as a historical initiator and witness of the dual economic and social project introduced 40 years ago by Antoine Riboud. Now a senior advisor with Danone, he has drawn on his experience in an edifying account entitled « La saga Danone, une ambition économique et sociale à l’épreuve du réel » (The Danone saga: a reality-proof economic and social ambition). Here is our interview with him.

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In your book, you talk about the speech – pretty revolutionary for the time – given by Antoine Riboud in Marseille in 1972[1]. How did this speech help moving Danone forward?

The speech was given at a very particular time, shortly after May ’68. Most company executives were traumatized by this student revolt, which led to a month-long general strike. But Antoine Riboud thought the new generation’s challenge to conservatism and authority was extremely healthy. In his speech on growth and quality of life to the 2,000 managers brought together by the CNPF (the national council of French employers, forerunner to the MEDEF, France’s largest employers’ federation), he said that the aspirations of more demanding, better-educated young people should be acknowledged. What was revolutionary was that he talked about company directors’ social responsibility towards their employees and their environment (the well-being of staff, pollution, responsibility towards consumers, etc.). For example, he said that « a firm’s responsibility does not stop at the office or factory door. The jobs it hands out condition people’s entire lives. Through the energy and raw materials it consumes, it changes the aspect of our planet. The public has reminded us of our responsibilities in this industrial society. (…) Growth must no longer be an end in itself, but a tool to serve the quality of life, without ever jeopardizing it. » This highly significant speech was the cornerstone of Danone’s dual economic and social project.

« A firm’s responsibility does not stop at the office or factory door. The jobs it hands out condition people’s entire lives. Through the energy and raw materials it consumes, it changes the aspect of our planet. »

How did this dual project actually take shape within the company?

After the Marseille speech, Antoine Riboud created a social innovation laboratory in order to work on themes like working conditions, organizational problems and relations between management and labor. In 1973 the « ACVT » programme (designed to promote improved living conditions at work) was launched in BSN’s factories, where groups were created for staff to express their views. In 1974, the world sank into a major economic recession due to the oil crisis. At that time, BSN was one of the European leaders in plate glass, employing 30,000. Glazing sales collapsed because the slump affected the building and automobile sectors. BSN was forced to restructure its activity completely, which involved laying off a third of its workforce. The issue of the dual economic and social project arose in this context. BSN decided to help all the staff made redundant to find new jobs – and this was the case for 90% of them. At the same time, BSN undertook to recreate as many jobs as the group had axed in the areas where factories had been closed. The real point of this dual project is to keep on existing against the heaviest odds. It’s when the going gets really tough that it proves how effective it is.

During the 2000s, Danone’s dual project took on a new dimension. Can you tell us about it?

Danone’s mission: bringing health through food to as many people as possible – the aim being to create healthy food, including for those living in dire poverty.

It’s true that social issues became a crucial concern during the 2000s. During this period, Danone was developing considerably in the emerging countries of Asia and Latin America. The question of businesses’ social responsibility was particularly important in these countries, where public policies and unions had little effect. In 2005, Franck Riboud decided to strengthen Danone’s unique character, which he saw as protection against public takeover bids. This initiative led to Danone’s mission: bringing health through food to as many people as possiblethe aim being to create healthy food, including for those living in dire poverty. In this context, he met Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006). And this was how Grameen Danone came about, followed by danone.communities, designed to experiment with new social business models – for example, with projects to access drinking water in India, Cambodia and Mexico. In 2009, the Danone Ecosystem Fund was launched in response to the global economic recession. Danone wanted to strengthen its « ecosystem » and create a mutually supportive economic circle encompassing those working with the group upstream, like small-scale milk producers, and downstream, in package recycling activities. Likewise, first one then two Livelihoods funds were launched. These investment funds support farming and rural projects in emerging countries. Their aim is to restore ecosystems, capture CO2 emissions and improve inhabitants’ incomes and living conditions in the long term.

How has Danone inspired the world of business and society more generally?

The dual project has had a checkered history: crises can strengthen it, like the one in 2008, or weaken it, as in the mid-Nineties with the turning point of globalization. What the dual project has really contributed, making Danone truly stand out, is its role as a pioneering company in the sphere of social responsibility. Danone’s Ecosystem and Livelihoods funds are good illustrations, because the initiatives have two winning ingredients: an innovative concept and large-scale deployment. The latter is crucial, because many businesses try out experiments that make a good story, but not many of them carry out actions with a powerful, enduring impact, which are deployed on an international scale because they provide a meaningful example.

« La saga Danone, une ambition économique et social à l’épreuve du réel » by Jérôme Tubiana, published by JC Lattès, September 2015.

[1] The most famous speech, which Jérôme Tubiana helped to write, given by Antoine Riboud, founder, chairman and CEO of BSN. This became Danone in 1994.

« La saga Danone, une ambition économique et social à l’épreuve du réel » (written by Jérôme Tubiana and published by JC Lattès in September 2015, is available in book stores and on various websites such as FNAC and Amazon).