BSR: Still relevant after all these years

Everyone assumes I go to a lot of sustainability conferences. I don’t. Outside of the ones we produce at GreenBiz Group, and outside of the ones I speak at — where, typically, I’m there for a day or less — there are only a small handful of conferences on my annual circuit. And only a couple I never miss.

One of them is BSR.

I’m writing this from BSR's 20th annual conference — a bit of a milestone: Not a lot of events in the sustainable business arena have reached their 20th birthday. Ceres, GEMI, a couple other conferences come to mind, as well as meetings of trade groups of environmental engineers and some other compliance-focused professions.

This is also a personal milestone: I am the only person who has been to all 20 BSR conferences, whatever that’s worth. (Actually, it was worth a nice shout-out from stage on Wednesday by my good friend, BSR’s president and CEO Aron Cramer.)

It’s been an interesting journey. I first connected with BSR in 1993, just as it was being formed. My book, The E-Factor, had recently been published. It was among the first books to frame the opportunity at the intersection of business and the environment. BSR, it turned out, was seeking someone to write a similar book about the emerging field of corporate social responsibility.

It stuck me as a bull's eye. I was intrigued by the notion of framing the business case for companies to engage in such things as employee well-being, human rights of factory workers in far-away lands, company engagement with local communities, employee empowerment, and, of course, companies’ environmental impacts and the opportunities that came from addressing them.

The resulting tome, Beyond the Bottom Line, didn’t make any bestseller lists, but it was well-received by its intended audience, including business schools.

But more than that, it opened my eyes to the larger world of sustainability beyond the environment, and the connectedness of company impacts, positive and negative, on the world around them. It made me understand that the condition of factory workers and the unchecked waste and emissions from the factories where they toiled were inextricably linked, along with a myriad of other impacts which — to this day — are typically seen as discrete problems when they are actually part of the same systemic failures.

Which is why I keep coming back to BSR. On the one hand, the conference hasn’t changed much over the years; the organization has found itself in a largely successful rut, programmatically speaking. The topics do change, though not dramatically.

But BSR’s conference never fails to deliver: a breathtaking survey of the sustainability landscape, moving beyond the same old companies and stories, putting me at times out of my comfort zone, which I crave. Altogether, it reminds me how the pieces fit together: How “modern-day slavery and human trafficking in the supply chain” is connected to “mega-cities and urbanization,” “humanizing the inclusive economy,” and “sustainability and leadership competencies,” to cite some of the 2012 session titles.

Next page: Listening through squinted ears