Becoming ethical anthropists

15 November 2022


IBE Chair David Grayson CBE reflects on the Anthropy conference held at the Eden Project in Cornwall Nov 2-4 2022.

If you are on Twitter and/or LinkedIn, you might have found it hard to miss reports of the inaugural Anthropy Conference held at the Eden Project in Cornwall Nov 2-4 2022. Anthropy has been variously described as “the UK Davos” and “a Glastonbury of ideas!”

It is the brainchild of purpose-advocate and networker extraordinaire John O’Brien. In the early stages of the COVID pandemic and lockdowns, John conceived the idea of a convening that might explore a new vision for Britain. Over the following 18 months, he convinced several hundred individuals and organisations to take a punt and help develop his idea. The Institute of Business Ethics was one of the earliest Anthropy partners.

The cold statistics alone are impressive.

  • 1100 participants
  • Almost 400 also spoke and participated as panellists
  • 170 separate sessions
  • All to produce one new Vision for Britain manifesto, to be launched on March 27th 2023.

As a veteran of many, many conferences over more than half a century (ouch! Yes! I was a bit of a geeky teenager! I gave my first speech at a political conference when I was sixteen!), I have been reflecting with the eye of a seasoned conference-goer, on why Anthropy worked so well on so many different levels.

Undoubtedly, the stunning venue of the Eden Project was a major factor. This was the first time that Eden had hosted such a conference. Sessions were held throughout the venue. There was something particularly special about a session on prosperity, held quite high up in the rainforest biodome, with water drops regularly falling on you! Or listening to discussions on the future of Britain, facilitated by journalist Kamal Ahmed in the Mediterranean biodome as birds flew around, chirping and even landing on delegates’ heads! It will be a long time before I forget what the Cornish locals described as “epic” rain drumming down on the roofs of the Visitor Centre and the biodomes during our meetings. (Especially as it was days 2-4 of my testing of sophisticated new hearing aids too!) It was good to be forced to get some fresh air and exercise as you scuttled between your chosen sessions all over the site – particularly as this encouraged chance conversations with total strangers – and sometimes produced wonderfully serendipitous connections.

Venues are crucially important, but it wasn’t just the venue. Travelling from around the country to the far south-west of England, inevitably encouraged a certain recalibration and getting into the moment. I do believe too that after 2.5 years of COVID and lockdowns and having to make do with virtual meetings, there is a particular hunger right now for some quality, meaningful and different face-to-face dialogues. Undoubtedly, Anthropy also benefitted from sourcing the wisdom of a committed and informed crowd, in the design and execution of the event. You will probably be familiar with the old adage: success has many parents and failure is an orphan – but I do believe that the work over the last year-plus to curate sessions around the four Anthropy pillars of People, Place, Prosperity and Position in the world – in which so many individuals and organisations inputted - definitely paid off.

It was particularly good to see and hear so many younger Britons from many different backgrounds, playing an active and engaged part in discussions.

Personally, I also believe that Anthropy was speaking to the desire that many of us feel for a different, better way of doing our politics. Current mainstream politicians were thin on the crowd: Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chancellor, attracted a large proportion of the total Anthropy audience (memo to organisers, if you have a big name, maybe don’t schedule as many competing sessions on the same time slot?) and the London Mayor Sadiq Khan also made the long journey to St Austell and was well-received. Otherwise: politicians were absent, which was a pity because today’s politicians and would-be MPs might have learnt a lot just by listening for three days, to impassioned and informed discussions about purpose-led business, place-based regeneration, reimagining social care, tackling the Climate Emergency and so much more.

There was plenty of passing references to doing business ethically. This is not perhaps surprising as I saw several IBE corporate supporters such as EY, KPMG, NatWest and friends of IBE at the Eden Project. Was there though, a bit of an unquestioning assumption that businesses – especially those that had committed the time of senior people to attend Anthropy, would – of course – know how to behave ethically and naturally always be able to do so?

We are in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) and new ethical dilemmas are emerging for businesses and society all the time. For example, if machines are doing the initial screening of job applications or loan applications, thanks to advances in Artificial Intelligence, how do organisations ensure there are no unconscious biases in the algorithms on which the machines work?

One lesson I draw from a remarkable and energising three days in Cornwall is that the IBE needs to be more vocal at Anthropy 2023. (Yes, Sir Tim Smit committed to hosting another Anthropy in the Eden Project again next year, during this inaugural event).

IBE might, for example,

  • Repeat our 2021 survey of FTSE companies and their Codes of Ethics and present the results at Anthropy.
  • Do an investigation into innovations – not just in training on Ethics Codes – but also innovation more broadly in co-creating with stakeholders, up-to-date Codes of Ethics and then socialising what ethical behaviours are expected from employees – again, ready for Anthropy 2023.
  • And/or we might develop a topical business ethical dilemma, encourage debate on this dilemma ahead of Anthropy 2023 and then host a forum at Anthropy 2023 on how participants there would resolve the dilemma.

Now, I can hear our IBE Director Ian Peters (who was also at Anthropy), groaning! “More ideas, David! Who is going to pursue them?!”

Rightly so! This is where you, dear readers, come in. Will you help us? Especially if you were at Anthropy 2022 or are already intrigued about attending in 2023.

If you were a 2022 sponsor or potential 2023 sponsor, can we work together to make sure that doing business ethically and building a truly sustainable, ethical culture for organisations, is firmly on the agenda of Anthropy next year?

Please get in touch if you would like to help! And meantime, watch out for more IBE blogs about Anthropy and the Anthropy Manifesto next year.


Professor David Grayson CBE
Professor David Grayson CBE


David is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. From 2007-2017, he was director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Professor of Corporate Responsibility.

David became Chair of the Trustees Board on 01 April 2019.

He joined Cranfield in April 2007, after a thirty year career as a social entrepreneur and campaigner for responsible business, diversity, and small business development. This included founding Project North East which has now worked in nearly 60 countries around the world; being the founding CEO of the Prince's Youth Business Trust and serving as a managing-director of Business in the Community.

David has an Honorary Doctorate of Law from London South Bank University and was a visiting Senior Fellow at the CSR Initiative of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard (2005-10).

He has served on various charity and public sector boards over the past 35 years. These have included the boards of the National Co-operative Development Agency, The Prince of Wales' Innovation Trust and the Strategic Rail Authority. He chaired the National Disability Council and the Business Link Accreditation Board; in each case appointed by the Major Government and re-appointed by the Blair administration. David now serves on the board of a financial services company in Asia where he leads on embedding ESG/sustainability and chairs the board’s Group Risk Management Committee.

He has previously chaired the national charity Carers UK and one of the UK's larger social enterprises and largest eldercare providers, Housing 21 during which the organisation made corporate history by becoming the first-ever not-for-profit successfully to acquire a publicly quoted group of companies. David received an OBE for services to industry in 1994 and a CBE for services to disability in 1999. He is a Companion of the Chartered Institute of Management.

David has written a number of books on responsible business and corporate sustainability including most recently: ‘All in - The Future of Business Leadership’ and The Sustainable Business Handbook – both with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee. He is part of the faculty of the Forward Institute and of the Circle of Advisers for Business Fights Poverty.

The Guardian has named David as one of ten top global tweeters on sustainable leadership alongside Al Gore, Tim Cook - CEO of Apple, and Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg.

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