Prior to our Responsible Business conference taking place on 21 November 2016, we spoke to Michael Gidney, CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation to find out his views on recent developments in this area. 

How do you feel expectations for responsible business have changed over the past 10 years?

I think it’s moved from 'nice to have’ to essential. The vast majority of British consumers say they expect businesses and the government to ensure food production is fair and sustainable. In a recent Globescan survey consumers said they want farmers and workers who grow food to be protected from unfair trade and they would be willing to pay more to ensure this.

What factors and incentives do you feel have been the most significant in driving the adoption of responsible behaviours?

High profile campaigns such as Make Poverty History, celebrity ambassadors and the rise of ethical labels, the most well-known of which is Fairtrade, have raised public awareness of the poverty affecting millions who are at the sharp end of global supply chains. In response the public has demanded to know about the provenance of their food and clothes; businesses have had to respond. The internet means this is the age of scrutiny – there is nowhere to hide.  At the same time more companies are waking up to the risks and opportunities of security of supply and are taking a more hands-on approach to their supply chain.

What frameworks do you feel are most effective in promoting responsible practices?

Last year, in a ground-breaking move, governments and businesses around the world committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – or Global Goals – and created a coherent framework for poverty reduction over the next 15 years. In the UK, we have the Modern Slavery Act, which is important legislation that requires companies to report on their supply chains but arguably tougher sanctions are needed too.  Markets need rules – the failure of the financial system is testament to what can happen with insufficient regulation.

What should the respective roles of business, government and civil society be?

The role of the government is to show political will and set frameworks, enact regulations and ensure companies comply.  Businesses are essential catalysts with the power and reach to deliver positive change on the ground. Civil Society can offer partnerships, expertise and most importantly, should hold both businesses and the government to account. 

What are your views on recent developments in responsible business and its governance?

There has been a step-change in the UK food trade, and in some other sectors.  Legislation like the Modern Slavery Act helps to govern responsible business and the remit of the government-appointed Grocery Code Adjudicator also encourages responsible behaviour and investigates any breaches of the industry’s Groceries Supply Code of Practice. Businesses have also made investments in corporate social responsibility programmes, having realised the importance of protecting the future sustainability of supply chains, which has resulted in many partnerships with organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation. That said, there is much more to do, both in food and in other sectors like mining where the concept of responsible business is many years behind.

What are you currently working on?

We’ve got a lot going on, not least our new strategy launched this year. Our key focus is on delivering greater impact for farmers and workers on the ground. We’re doing that with innovative new offers to business, including partnerships on specific programmes. There will also be the implications of Brexit that we now have to consider, which provides the opportunity to shape future trade deals with developing countries to help reduce poverty through trade.