BSR: Still relevant after all these years

Two Steps Forward

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.

As I often do at such events, I listen through squinted ears — my own admittedly awkward coinage — keeping my ears peeled for emerging trends, disconnected dots, and unexpected linkages between seemingly disparate things.

BSR’s conference is great for that.

At lunch on Wednesday, I emceed an exercise in which we polled the 1,000 or so people in the room (via a cool phone and tablet app) to get the community's pulse on a series of questions, after which Cramer, CSRwire editorial director Aman Singh, and I discussed the results on stage. Three of the findings:

  • “Business integration of sustainability” was seen as making the greatest difference in accelerating business progress toward a sustainable world, followed by reforming financial markets to promote long-term thinking, and improving supply-chain management.
  • Consumer disinterest outranked investor disinterest, lack of business leadership and public policy failures as the greatest barrier to wider uptake of sustainability among companies worldwide.
  • The collapse of strategic natural resources was seen as the factor mostly likely to have a major impact on sustainability over the next 20 years, when compared with the other choices: the rising generation of consumers and citizens; radical efficiencies enabled by information technology; and the rise, and possible fall, of China’s economy.

It wasn’t a shock that 82 percent of survey respondents believe their company will be “more sustainable” five years from now. After all, this was a roomful of folks whose principal jobs are to accomplish exactly that. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to discuss why 18 percent of them didn’t expect any progress by their companies over the next half decade.

That might have made for an interesting conversation. Maybe it will come up when I return to BSR’s conference, faithfully, again next year.