[Editor's Note: This article is part of GreenBiz.com's coverage of the 2009 Business for Social Responsibility conference. To read all our coverage, visit GreenBiz.com/BSR2009.]

GreenBiz.com is pleased to be a media sponsor of the 2009 Business for Social Responsibility Conference, happening October 20-23 in San Francisco.

The theme of this year's event is "Reset Economy, Reset World," and the conference explores the trio of global crises -- economic, environmental and social -- that have overturned the concept of business as usual in the last year.

As part of our coverage leading up to the conference, I spoke with BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer last week to discuss some of the issues that the conference's speakers and sessions will discuss. 


The full interview is posted as a podcast on GreenBiz Radio, where you can listen to the podcast as well as read a transcript of our talk. Below is a short excerpt from our conversation.

Matthew Wheeland: BSR is very engaged with especially water issues, there are supply chain issues. Can you give us an example of a recent activity that companies -- that BSR members or BSR projects have worked on, that serve as an example for showing business concern beyond just profits?

Aron Cramer: Well, we are, in any given year, we're working on 150 - 200 projects with our 250 member companies, and there are a couple that, I think, are particularly interesting in this year, in 2009.

One is that we worked with Sprint and Samsung in the development of their reclaimed phone, which is an actual handset, a mobile phone, that Sprint's put into the marketplace. It's a Samsung phone that is a truly sustainable handset, and the issue of e-waste is obviously one of considerable concern.

A lot of people believe that companies are just always trying to sell the next new thing, regardless of the impact on the environment, but here's an example of a couple of companies who took a very common consumer device and tried to redesign it from the ground up to make sure that it didn't just have a green coat of paint, but in fact was based on sustainability principles from the beginning.

And I think when you see more companies designing for sustainability along the lines of this phone that we have the great opportunity to work on with Sprint and Samsung, then you get into an economy that is much more like a closed loop economy. And I think that's the kind of thing that will not only deliver great results for the companies that are doing them, but also I think will begin to reshape the very core of the economy.

On another note, we've been working with Walmart and a number of its suppliers in China. Walmart has made some very big, audacious statements about its objectives on sustainability, and we've been working right there on the ground with Walmart and a number of its suppliers, with staff person embedded in Walmart's headquarters in China to help these big suppliers simply reduce their energy use.

And in very practical ways, finding solutions so that the workshop of the world, as China's known, will use a lot less energy. Now this is relevant to trust for a very simple reason: we've seen the rise of a lot of claims by companies about emissions reductions, water use, you name it -- and there are a lot of people who are skeptical about those views, or about those statements.

Here's a case where a company's made some big statements and is following it up by working -- and working with BSR -- to help realize those objectives. And when companies are not only making but delivering on those kinds of statements of intent, I think you'll see public trust begin to rebound.

MW: Absolutely, and I'm glad you brought up China. I know that is at least one element of the agenda for the conference, and it's obviously a huge issue in terms of it being the workplace for the world, as you just mentioned. Can you give me a thumb-nail sketch of the state of sustainability practices in China?

AC: Telling the tale of sustainability in China is Dickensian in the sense that it's almost always a tale of two cities. On the one hand, we're seeing an immense amount of innovation, and one of our plenary speakers at this year's conference is a gentleman named Zhang Yue who runs the Broad Air Conditioning, which is -- they are technological innovators creating an air conditioning unit that uses significantly less energy than traditional air conditioning units do. So this is a company that's finding a way in China and internationally to reduce reliance on dirty energy. And there are lots and lots of examples of that coming from China.

Politically, we saw that Chinese leadership make a strong commitment at the U.N. last month to using more renewable energy. Those are all very positive signs.

At the same time, China is a very big country, and it continues to invest in dirty power. There continue to be questions about the working conditions in the factories that export so many products around the world. So it's very much a work in progress, but I think there are lots of reasons to look at China and find examples of the kind of innovation that will be absolutely necessary if we're going to move to a low-carbon economy.

MW: One idea that keeps coming up, almost every time I talk with a business leader, is sort of the confluence between this increased awareness about environmental issues and concern about it in the business community, but then also the crashing economy. And so I'm wondering how you've seen your members sustain their sustainability goals in the face of shrinking budgets or make the business case for new sustainability goals.

AC: Well, in some ways, the tale of the last year is one of great success in terms of a company's maintaining -- and in many cases extending -- their commitment to sustainability. That might be counterintuitive, but in fact, I think what it reflects is a recognition of what many of us in the sustainability world have been saying for a long time, that actually, done right, corporate responsibility or sustainability is a key ingredient in business success. It helps companies anticipate broad social trends, environmental trends. It helps companies be more responsive to the dense network of constituencies it means to reach. And in many cases, it can be a real driver of innovation. And so we have seen very, very few examples -- if any -- of companies just walking away from their activities related to sustainability.

I think what has happened is a lot of companies have taken a cold, hard look and maybe dropped some activities that maybe they had engaged in traditionally, but didn't seem to be delivering so much value in today's more constrained economic times. We've seen that in some activities around philanthropy. We've seen that in some areas around stakeholder engagement. Not companies doing less of it, but using different methodologies, taking advantage of technology, or simply refining the stakeholders that they're talking to, to deliver more value.

So I actually take away from the difficult times of the last year an immense amount of optimism about the staying power of sustainability. I think that in some ways, the recession has accelerated the process of maturing of the world of sustainability and we've got a stronger, fit-for-purpose approach that most companies are taking, and it's clearly here to stay.