Living the Global Compact
At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting for 2000 in Davos, Switzerland, Novartis Chairman Daniel Vasella dined with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. During the meal, Mr. Annan asked Novartis to join the UN Global Compact, a fledgling initiative under which corporations support a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labor standards, the environment and efforts to combat corruption.
Novartis agreed to become one of the first signatories. In a letter on July 14, 2000, outlining the commitment, Dr Vasella called the principles of the Global Compact “important building blocks for a free and prosperous world economy.” He added: “It is our firm belief that free trade, innovation based on fair protection of intellectual property and the core values expressed in the Global Compact are essential elements for sustainable economic and social progress.”
Today the Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate citizenship initiative with more than 7 000 signatories in 135 counties. In 2004, underscoring the commitment of Novartis to the initiative, Secretary-General Annan nominated Professor Klaus Leisinger, President of the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, as Special Advisor on the Global Compact. For two years, Professor Leisinger served as a global ambassador, advancing issues critical to the Global Compact.
Professor Leisinger represented Novartis at the Leaders Summit 2010 at UN headquarters in New York, marking the tenth anniversary of the Global Compact’s launch. In an interview, he discusses progress of the Global Compact to date as well as future challenges facing the initiative.
The Global Compact has become a cornerstone of Corporate Citizenship at Novartis. What were the key factors in implementing the initiative?
KL: The Global Compact is a process, not a project that you start and eventually finish. In retrospect, the early and unequivocal commitment at the highest level of management was the decisive factor that endowed the Global Compact with the weight and importance it enjoys at Novartis today.
Whenever there were basic decisions about whether to be proactive or take a narrow legalistic approach, Daniel Vasella always insisted that values were non-negotiable and that we should go the proactive way. Those signals from the top have been critical: if senior management doesn’t take a firm stand, people will try to guess which way the wind is blowing.
At the same time, it was obvious that the Global Compact could not be a top-down, staff-invented affair and the first 12 months were a very intensive learning period. We set up a steering committee comprising representatives from all the divisions and several countries. We sent out several hundred questionnaires – explaining what the company had committed to, and asking people if there was anything they felt uneasy about. According to the responses we got there were no skeletons in the closet.