Behind the forces disrupting the CSO's role

Aron Cramer
Gordon Murray
BSR CEO Aron Cramer says that new technology and big data are disrupting the corporate sustainability field.

As the business world changes due to new technologies and automation, so does the field of corporate sustainability.

Sustainability management is being disrupted along with business in general, said Aron Cramer, CEO of BSR, during a GreenBiz 17 talk on reinventing corporate sustainability Thursday.

“Very few companies are thinking about how the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer is going to change,” said Cramer.

CSOs from different industries came to the Phoenix event to share how they perform their jobs and how their own companies define or emphasize corporate sustainability. These business leaders now have to reexamine their core competencies to prepare for the future, Cramer said.

“CSOs are futurists, connectors, innovators, revenue generators and yes, also advocates."

BSR is a global nonprofit organization that works with its network of more than 250 member companies and other partners to build "a just and sustainable world." Cramer joined BSR in 1995 as the founding director of its Business and Human Rights Program, and later opened BSR's Paris office in 2002, where he worked until he became president and CEO in 2004.

Data, ethics and sustainability

New technologies and big data will profoundly disrupt corporate sustainability field, he said. “Big data will remake stakeholder engagement so we won’t be talking to the same two dozen organizations over and over again."

Big data is increasingly becoming intertwined with sustainability as businesses see potential cost savings. One example is data gleaned from smart grids, which has the potential to generate energy cost savings of up to $2 trillion by 2030, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (PDF).

Cramer says, however, that new technology also presents new obstacles when it comes to human rights and ethics.

“Thinking about how the rights agenda applies when you got artificial intelligence and personalized medicine and all sorts of opportunities that raise a lot of questions. ...The Universal Declaration of Human Rights...that was written in 1948, nobody had a television in 1948.”

Optimism in advocacy

Yet, despite all the potential opportunities to redefine corporate sustainability and all the new frameworks adopted in 2016, there is still the elephant in the room — Donald Trump and all the uncertainty his presidency brings.  

“In 2016, we had a pretty roller coaster ride in the in the United States as well as in England and in many other parts of the world,” said Cramer.

Yet he saw a bright spot when businesses become involved in advocating against North Carolina's “bathroom bill,” also known as House Bill 2.

The bill eliminated a Charlotte ordinance that “protected transgender people who use public restrooms based on their gender identity. The new law also nullified local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community,” according to the Charlotte Observer.

Cramer said, “The notion that a lot of people, including CEOs headquartered in the reddest of red states, would speak up on behalf of transgender people — I could not have imagined that five years ago. The business community has found its voice.”

He wants to see more advocacy and engagement from businesses going forward.

“Policymakers need to hear from business. The vision of the future economy that we’re talking about here that is not heard, advocated or defended in Washington enough, business can do that,” said Cramer.