BSR 2011: Welcoming the Seven Billionth Sustainability Leader

BSR 2011: Welcoming the Seven Billionth Sustainability Leader

Last week, Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR, welcomed more than a thousand attendees to BSR's annual conference by noting how BSR's conferences always seem to coincide with momentous events throughout the world. Last week was no different.

Attendees could look out at the encampment that is Occupy San Francisco, across the street from the conference venue, in front of the Federal Reserve of San Francisco. Or they could read the U.S. Department of Energy's new figures for 2010 levels of greenhouse gases, which beat worst-case scenario forecasts from four years earlier. Or note the birth of the seven billionth person on Earth.

It was within the context of current events that Cramer described the theme of the conference, that of redefining leadership. Of course, BSR lined up an impressive number of CEOs to provide leadership keynotes. But, as Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn cautioned later in the week, he can "give the team air cover" but CEOs can't get this done by themselves. This is why Cramer called on all BSR attendees to be leaders, to "lead by bringing others along with us."

Al Gore's keynote, immediately following Cramer's call to action, was passionate in its denunciation of short-termism (GreenBiz's Tilde Herrera covered it here). In discussing the need to "make changes in the brains of investing," he also provided an interesting perspective on leadership.

Gore quoted President John F. Kennedy's "moonshot" speech; words referenced by many pundits when discussing the scale of effort necessary to even mitigate the effects of future climate change. But Gore pointed out that the 26-year-old engineers who celebrated the moon landing in Houston were just 18 when Kennedy made his speech. His point was they were not CEOs, but they were leaders -- young leaders.

As with any conference, there are surprises and disappointments. Roused by Gore's impassioned speech, I went to hear what to expect from Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Listening to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence J. Gumbiner, it's hard to pin your hopes on much emerging from the event.

Twenty years ago, it was the Rio Earth Summit and the prospect of a global climate treaty. Next year in Rio the focus will be the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. When asked about outcomes, Gumbiner said it would not be seen in a formal document but rather in the tweets and viral videos that emerge.

Maybe it's just me, but policy creation at 140 characters a pop is not inspiring. Still looking for international encouragement, I listened to Stanford professor and former New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley discuss the role of business in the Arab spring. Early in his talk, he discounted the impact of social media's role or any concept of a Facebook revolution. His contention is that the television network Al Jazeera is what brought people out to Tahrir Square.

Brinkley urged businesses to not sit back and wait to see what happens, but to start making small investments now. In his view, the Arab spring was not a rallying cry for democracy. It was a call for dignity, prosperity, and freedom — "in that order." Businesses that help to bring about that prosperity can benefit even as the politics remain fluid for some time.

In fact, investing was one of the unexpected discoveries during the conference. Our Joel Makower moderated a panel with Ian Yolles of Recyclebank and Colin LeDuc, a co-founder and partner of Generation Investment Management, along with Gore and David Blood. LeDuc talked about the return of corporate venture capital investing, especially in sustainability. Eighteen months ago "this wasn't happening." Now it is.

Which brings us full circle to the inspiration for the organization that is getting ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary -- business for social responsibility. While much in the world is in flux, it is encouraging to learn from a thousand fellow travelers how we might build a better tomorrow.