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BSR17 Al Gore

Our Story

Building the Business of a Better World


Photo: US Gulf Coast at Night, NASA

Early Days

1992-1993

Before the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, before sustainability reports or chief sustainability officers, and before the idea of stakeholders was used widely, a new vision of business emerged.

This was a vision of business as a force for positive social change—a force that would preserve and restore natural resources, ensure human dignity and fairness, and operate transparently.

This vision can be traced back to gatherings of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of socially minded entrepreneurs who pioneered many of the purpose-driven businesses that emerged in the second half of the 1980s. In 1991, SVN members such as Josh Mailman, Mal Warwick, and Judy Wicks led the creation of the first version of BSR, which was designed to serve as the voice of progressive businesses in policy formation in Washington, D.C. The following year, in 1992, Business for Social Responsibility was launched, with 51 member companies and an inaugural event featuring Ben & Jerry’s Cofounder Ben Cohen, the Body Shop Founder Anita Roddick, and Stonyfield Farms Cofounder Gary Hirshberg.

In 1993, BSR hosted its first annual Conference, welcoming U.S. President Bill Clinton as a speaker and attracting 300 participants. By the end of that year, BSR had assimilated many statewide and regional groups, such as Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. By 1994, however, the BSR board concluded that the organization’s mission of influencing public policy should change, and the board switched BSR’s organizational approach to something we have applied ever since: Working with companies to integrate social and environmental considerations into their core business.

To refine and implement this strategy, BSR recruited Bob Dunn as CEO, and drew on his experiences as the head of corporate affairs at Levi Strauss & Co., where he spearheaded the adoption of the first code of conduct for supply chain labor practices. Dunn and BSR Chairman Arnold Hiatt developed the BSR model that remains in place today.

Raising Awareness

1994-1999

Following BSR’s “relaunch” in 1994, we adopted a mission to work with business to create a just and sustainable world. In light of this new approach, we made several big changes.

First, we began to work more with large companies, which represented a small part of BSR’s initial network. We also made an intentional decision to become a “big tent” organization, welcoming any company with an interest in improving its sustainability performance. Second, we moved our headquarters from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, reflecting the shift in strategy from a focus on public policy to a focus on influencing companies’ implementation of corporate responsibility. Finally, we established four core program areas: environment, human rights, community economic development, and governance and accountability. This marked an evolution from an early emphasis on the environment.

BSR also made other shifts during this period. Participation by large companies in our membership grew rapidly, and we became far more active outside the United States, welcoming our first European-headquartered member companies, supporting a global infrastructure of CSR organizations including Forum Empresa in the Americas, and partnering with CSR Europe and the International Business Leaders Forum in Europe. BSR also pioneered rapidly growing supply chain efforts focused initially on Asia and Latin America, including the first human rights trainings for business in China. Finally, when the internet emerged as a transformative feature of daily life, BSR launched the first comprehensive website dedicated to corporate responsibility, the Global Business Responsibility Resource Center, supported by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

Shifting Strategy

2000-2005

At the turn of the new millennium, sustainability started to go mainstream. The arrival of the UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative, coupled with the “Battle in Seattle” during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference and the governance failures illustrated by Enron and others, further catalyzed attention by most global businesses.

Concluding that the era of raising awareness was over, we challenged ourselves to scale up BSR’s work and embed sustainability into everyday business decisions. To do this, we took new steps to serve BSR members and realize our mission. During the first part of the decade, we augmented our longstanding commitment to collaborative corporate efforts with one-on-one consulting projects that integrated sustainability into core business. We also expanded our footprint outside the United States, opening offices in Hong Kong in 2001 and in Paris in 2002, and welcoming new board members from Europe.

BSR also helped Net Impact achieve a leadership transition and relaunch itself as an independent organization, after it had operated under the auspices of BSR for two years.

Going Global

2006-Present

Beginning in the mid-2000s, we rapidly expanded our global footprint, opening offices in Copenhagen, Guangzhou, New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo. Our staff size grew from 60 people—all but four of whom worked in San Francisco—to more than 100, spread across eight offices, by 2012.

During this period, we have continued our commitment to collaborative initiatives, several of which we incubated, including the Global Network Initiative and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, which we then spun off into independent institutions. More recently developed collaborative initiatives, including the Future of Fuels and the Future of Internet Power, and HERhealth and HERfinance, help companies across industries and sectors focus on cross-cutting issues like energy and women’s empowerment. We also now focus a greater proportion of our time on environmental issues, particularly energy and climate, ecosystems services, and water.

Finally, our focus today reflects BSR’s deepened commitment to one-on-one consulting. Our staff works closely with C-suite executives and senior leaders in core functions at our member companies, a shift that reflects not only BSR’s strategy, but also the growing recognition at the highest level of business that sustainability is core to success.