50 years ago, Antoine Riboud invented corporate responsibility

On October 25, 1972, Antoine Riboud, boss of the Danone group (which was still called BSN), spoke before the foundations of French employers, in Marseille, in a speech that marked his time. He defended the need for a business leader not only to achieve growth but also to seek the well-being of employees and to take into account the impact of his activity on the environment.

It was then four years after 1968, when the Club of Rome published its report on the limits of growth. Antoine Riboud was one of the business leaders who were attentive to the changes at work within society. At the time, his speech caused a small earthquake within the CNPF, the National Confederation of French Employers.

Fifty years later, the creator of Danone appears more like a visionary. The speech of Marseilles is considered as founder of the idea that there is a social and environmental responsibility of companies. This Tuesday, October 25, the Medef, descendant of the CNPF, will mark the anniversary with a symposium devoted to “the legacy of Antoine Riboud”.

“The resources of the earth have limits, those of man are infinite”

We can recall a few famous phrases from this speech: Economic growth, the market economy have transformed, upset the standard of living in the Western world. It is indisputable. But the result is far from perfect.said the entrepreneur at the time. “Corporate responsibility does not stop at the factory or office doorstep. Its action is felt in the entire communityand influences the quality of life of every citizen”he continues.

And he ends with this invocation: “Let’s conduct our businesses as much with the heart as with the head, and let’s not forget that if the energy resources of the earth have limits, those of Man are infinite if he feels motivated. »

In this speech, he therefore speaks of “corporate responsibility”of the “the planet’s limited resources”of the ” social inequalities “of need of “transparencies with environmental defense associations”of “social contract to manage employment needs”of “dialogue with the unions”of “achievement of human and social objectives”of “reconciling industry and man”so many deeply new themes for the time and which hurt the ears of a good part of the employers.

Corporate law has evolved

At the same time, he speaks as a business leader, without putting forward an ideological vision, but simply proposing a few simple rules of conduct to reconcile employees and business leaders, the need to make a profit and the need to preserve planet. It advocates listening to and respecting stakeholders: employees, suppliers, consumers, etc.

With 50 years of hindsight, his words seem very modern. A number of these ideas have given rise to legislative changes, brought about in particular by the Pacte law in 2019. In particular, it created the status of company with a mission, a status that Danone was among the first large companies to adopt.

Most French companies have also evolved, they have integrated the obligation to manage skills and jobs over the long term, to engage in social dialogue, to report on their environmental impact and to try to limit it.

This did not prevent, in 2018, more than 18,000 students from French Grandes Ecoles from signing a letter in which they undertake not to work for polluting companies. A gesture that Antoine Riboud would no doubt have greatly appreciated.

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