CSR at 20: An interview with BSR's Aron Cramer

Corporate social responsibility is entering its third decade as a mainstream business movement, at least as measured by the history of BSR, the organization formed in 1992 as Business for Social Responsibility, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. It's a good time to take stock — of the organization, the movement, and the trends shaping its future.

I've had the opportunity to follow and engage with BSR from its inception, beginning in 1992, when I was asked to collaborate with the fledgling organization to write one of the earliest framing books on CSR: Beyond the Bottom Line, published in 1994. I attended BSR's first conference, in the fall of 1993, which boasted a keynote from the then newly inaugurated president Bill Clinton. I've watched as the organization grew from a handful of professionals to a global think tank and consultancy, with more than 100 staffers and offices in China, Brazil, Europe, and the United States.

The official theme of BSR's 20th annual conference (October 23-26 in New York) is "Fast Forward," but I was more intrigued by the theme of a series of conversations BSR hosted around the world over the past year: "Everything's changed. Nothing's changed." That struck me as one of the more candid and sober assessments I'd seen of CSR and sustainability, let alone by a group whose mission, more or less, is to be a cheerleader for these things.

I took the occasion of BSR's 20th to interview Aron Cramer, the group's president and CEO, a good friend with whom I've had an invigorating, ongoing conversation about sustainability for most of the 17 years he's been at BSR, including eight years at its helm. Following is our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Your 20th anniversary theme — “Everything’s Changed. Nothing’s Changed” — is a really interesting assessment of CSR. Tell me how you came to that theme.

Aron Cramer: As the anniversary for BSR was approaching, we talked about what’s changed. Where are we? Not we, BSR, but the wider field that focuses on sustainability. There is progress on some of the Millennium Development Goals. Many companies are working really hard to reduce their natural resource inputs and waste. There’s a lot more information available to consumers, whether they use it or not. Sustainability is part of the discussion. That’s a huge victory.

At the same time, there are a lot of objective measures that demonstrate not only that we’re not making progress, but we may be going in the wrong direction. Greenhouse gases, as they continue to accumulate, is the best example of that, but there are also more and more water-stressed regions, and biodiversity is decreasing. So, we look at the world, and we say the sustainability movement has been around for a couple decades, it’s done a great job of changing not only the business agenda, but the world’s agenda. But there’s still a really long way to go.

The key is to push fast-forward. We feel we — and again, not only BSR, but the wider world that thinks about this — are aware of where we need to go, what we need to accomplish. The question now is: How do we do that, and how can we do that more quickly? And make not just relative gains, but absolute gains in terms of achieving BSR’s mission, which has been the same throughout its history: to achieve a just and sustainable world by working with business. We know where to go. We’ve just got to get there more quickly.

Makower: I started off asking about “CSR” and you ended up talking about “sustainability.” How do you view the difference?

Cramer: BSR’s vision has always been about, and continues to be about a comprehensive vision of good outcomes for society, strong enterprises, and healthy economics that take care of the natural environment. It’s a comprehensive vision, a holistic vision. We started out talking about corporate social responsibility, which was a term that was very useful in terms of getting conversations started. Today, there are some people who don’t like the term. There is no single term that really encompasses the view that we have, but I think sustainability is probably closest.

In some ways, it’s really "sustainable development" because this is not just about preserving the natural environment. This is about ensuring that people have decent livelihoods, and can live in dignity, and be treated fairly. So, there’s a development aspect of it as well. Every term that gets used means different things to different people, and there isn’t a single term that’s perfect. We tend to use sustainability more and more these days, but we’re not dogmatic about it, and advise companies to pick a term that’s meaningful for them that embraces a comprehensive vision, and that they use consistently.

Next Page: Is CSR about constraints or opportunities?