Friday, January 30, 2009

CSR Reflections on Davos (Day 2)

A year after Bill Gates famously called for a new model of "creative capitalism" at Davos, it seems that business (especially the banks) took him a bit too literally. Of course, Gates didn't mean creative loans and hedge fund activities, but his speech stands in stark contrast to this year's "crisis capitalism" mood.

Despite Tony Blair's reassurances that "the free enterprise system has not failed, the financial system has failed", the most consistent refrain echoing through the chilly corridors of the World Economic Forum on Day 2 was that capitalism needs bringing back into line. The adolescent years of free market rebels without a cause are over. (I wish I believed them!)

On Day 1, all eyes seemed to be on the bankers. On Day 2, the stakes were raised and the US was in the spotlight. A number of delegates were talking about the failure of US-led capitalism and even Bill Clinton was nodding. When asked about Wen Jiabao's thinly veiled criticism of America over the crisis, he said: "The Chinese premier was right: It all started in the United States."

Somewhat incongruously, Valerie Jarrett, speaking as President Obama's representative in Davos, told delegates that his message can be conveyed in one word: "responsibility". That's encouraging but not terribly helpful. What does it mean? Maybe the test will literally be "the ability to repond" by policians and CEOs. Too little too late some say, but watch this space.

One place to start, according a WEF report released is clean energy investment, which they claim needs to more than triple to $515bn (£360bn) a year to stop greenhouse gas emissions reaching levels deemed unsustainable by scientists. At least that's a message Obama seems to be taking on board.

At a corporate level, at least one good news story of response-ability emerged. US firm Tupperware Brands Corp said it is unlikely to lay off staff or cut costs. Chief executive Rick Goings admonished that "the last thing to cut is your talent." Let's hope other CEOs are listening, although I seriously doubt it.

The annual Philanthropic Lunch, with its predictable crowd of Bill-spotters (including the Gates and Clinton varieties), seems to me a bit like a doing a band-aid dance at a chainsaw massacre party. At least it produced a pearl from Gates - philanthropy is fun and fulfilling! Well, if anyone would know, its the world's biggest philanthropist ever, right?

Then again, wouldn't it be better to improve capitalism as a system, so that we don't need to rely so much on uber-philanthropists' need for a warm-fuzzy endorphine fix? Why don't we give responsible capitalism a try first, and then we can talk about something a bit more creative after that? How about it - do we have a deal, Bill?