[Editor's note: GreenBiz.com is proud to be a media sponsor of the 2009 Business for Social Responsibility conference. This is the first report from the show floor, with more to come. For all our coverage of the event, visit GreenBiz.com/BSR2009.]
The adage that "the urgent tends to crowd out the important" is what we're seeing at play in the world of business and government today -- and over the last year -- as concerns about reviving the economy take some level of precedence over environmental initiatives.
Fortunately, at the Business for Social Responsibility conference under way in San Francisco, a number of business and public sector leaders are coming together to show how the urgency of climate change also underlies the most important decisions that companies are making.
The theme of the conference, "Reset Economy, Reset World," looks at how the Great Recession is rewriting the rules for business and government, and the morning sessions examined this new landscape in depth.
"The reset world offers huge opportunities for companies that win the race toward a low-carbon economy," said BSR President Aron Cramer in his opening address. "The need for a less carbon-intense economy is huge, and companies that get there first will be very successful."
Cramer laid out five elements of a successful strategy for companies that want to make a big impact on the environment and society, while also opening the door to those opportunities:
1. A positive impact on public policy;
2. Technological innovations to deal with climate change;
3. Achieving innovations in efficiency right now;
4. A recommittment to working within value chains; and
5. Communication across suppliers, customers and policymakers.
The top focus this morning was on how to make policy work for business, people and the environment at the same time, and the two panelists joining Cramer on stage at the opening of the conference offered their insights as well.
Ernst Ligteringen, the CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, asked if we can afford to have companies not undertaking sustainability reports. He offered the examples of the Swedish government mandating reporting for all state-owned companies, and the Danish government saying that the largest companies in that country must either report their environmental impacts or explain why they're not doing so.
"This is part of a process to help learn which companies are part of the solution, which ones are part of the problem, and how can we move forward," Ligteringen said.
Ricardo Young, the chairman of Brazil's Ethos Institute, followed Ligteringen's comment with an example about the main Brazilian development bank, which may be considering environmental reporting as a prerequisite for any organization that wants to receive government funds.
Young summed up the challenge facing the world right now: "We are living in a moment where we are hesitating because the things that are happening are so broad that we don't know exactly where we should start.
"And that's where the business community can play an important role, because they have a relationship with the business community, with the consumer and with the policymakers," he told the conference.
The business community will be key to encouraging future action.
"Most businesses don't have the luxury of forgetting about what the future looks like," Cramer explained. "It's not about short-termism so much as it is about past, present and future, and making sure that our public policies are based on that and enable businesses to make decisions based on that."
A later session built on this point: "Public Policy for CSR: Best Practices" brought together business, government and NGO leaders to look at all elements of the triple bottom line and how business can effectively shape environmental policy.
Jonathan Jacoby, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam America, has been working with the industry coalition BICEP to develop climate change adaptation strategies, especially in the developing regions where their supply chains originate.
"Don't take it from us [NGOs]," Jacoby told the crowd, "take it from the companies who know this the best. Starbucks, Nike and Levi's all say, 'look at our supply chains: We have skin in the game, too.' "
As a result, he said, part of Oxfam's strategy is to simply put these firms in front of policymakers and legislators and just let them make the case.
One example held up as a successful way to help influence public policy on sustainability was the American Chemistry Council. Arvin Ganesan from the U.S. EPA explained what made its work effective: Unlike other groups that might have one set of goals for its publicly stated policy platform but will lobby in Washington's back rooms for something else, the ACC has aligned its policy and lobbying organizations with great success.
"That alignment has achieved (for ACC) not only access to the decisionmakers and being part of a stakeholder process in how these bills are created, but also allow(s) them to meaningfully engage in these issues that weren't on the radar of the policymakers," Ganesan said.
Tomorrow's agenda includes discussions of "ecoliteracy," developing systemic solutions to sustainability problems, and much more. Stay tuned for our further coverage.