Former Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende Speaks on Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility

On 17 June, the Hague Institute for Global Justice welcomed former Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende for a lecture on “Global Justice and Corporate Responsibility: Entrepreneurial Spirit and Sustainable Innovation”. In his speech, Mr. Balkenende drew on experiences from his time in government as well as his recent experiences from the business sector. He argued that businesses need to focus on creating shared value for society by integrating sustainability in their business model. “We have to stop talking and start walking” the former Prime Minister said.

The lecture took place as part of the Institute’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Premier Perspectives, which invites four former Dutch Prime Ministers to give their perspective on issues related to global justice, international relations and institutional governance.

Beginning his lecture, Mr. Balkenende explained that during his time in office sustainability became an increasingly important topic. He mentioned the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, even though he acknowledged that the outcome of the latter was disappointing. He also pointed to the fact that documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth and Chasing Ice have played an important role in bringing attention to environmental issues and making more people aware of the need for sustainability.

More recently, at the World Entrepreneur Of The Year event, Mr. Balkenende was inspired by the enthusiasm of business leaders, who were convinced of their responsibility towards society and wanted to leave a legacy of not only creating profit for the company, but also value for society. Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution and Ellen MacArthur’s idea about the circular economy have also inspired Mr. Balkenende. Hence, the former Prime Minister indicated that businesses cannot continue “business as usual”; they will have to change.

This year will bring two important opportunities for change: the launch of the sustainable development goals at the UN General Assembly and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Mr. Balkenende argued that setting goals is a good first step, but the implementation of these goals is critical. He further expressed his hopes that the Paris Climate Change Conference will become a success.

Mr. Balkenende went on to say that one company alone cannot change the world, therefore there is a need for new alliances and cooperation within value chains. He emphasized the example of Unilever, who invited all types of stakeholders to a review of their sustainability policy. Businesses also need to focus on long-term thinking, which can make them better able to tackle the challenges of climate change. Furthermore, merely donating to charity is not sufficient; sustainability has to be integrated in the business model. This can be achieved through integrated reporting, which focuses on the social and ecological performance of the company, as well as economic performance.All in all, what is needed, Mr. Balkenende argued, is entrepreneurship, innovation and focus on sustainability.

During the Q&A session, which was moderated by Dr. Abi Williams, President of the Hague Institute for Global Justice, Mr. Balkenende had the opportunity to address various issues, including cooperation between businesses and government, migration, transparency in international relations, challenges for sustainability in developing countries, gender equality and attitudes towards the EU among businesses and the population. He emphasized that change starts with personal conviction about the need for sustainability, and that businesses, governments, consumers, media and civil society actors all have a role to play in this endeavor.

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