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, DC. 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 US 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, through the efforts of initial Board Chair Arnold Hiatt, recruited Bob Dunn as President and 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.
The Rise of Corporate Responsibility
BSR “relaunched” in 1994, adopting a mission that focused on working with business to create a just and sustainable world, rather than a focus on public policy advocacy. In light of this new approach, we made several big changes.
First, we began to work 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 a commitment to improving its sustainability performance. Second, we moved our headquarters from Washington, DC 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 US, welcoming our first European-headquartered member companies, supporting a global infrastructure of CSR organizations including our role on leading the launch of 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 to Catalyze Business Action
At the turn of the new millennium, sustainability was gaining momentum, starting to be mainstreamed in many businesses. The arrival of the UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative emerged as important elements of sustainable business frameworks, and backlash against globalization, coming from events like 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 awareness raising 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.
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 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 expanded our programmatic focus with a heightened commitment to environmental issues, particularly energy and climate, ecosystems services, and water.
Just and Sustainable Business Rises Amidst Profound Change
The period from 2015 has seen several crucially important developments bringing strong momentum to the movement to achieve a more just and sustainable world. The landmark Paris Agreement has sparked previously unimagined climate action. Over the past few years, we have also seen significant increases in ESG investing, the emergence of innovative business models and technologies driven by sustainability imperatives, and rising regulatory and policy initiatives promoting sustainable business. Sustainability is now firmly established as being of fundamental importance to business and the wider world.
At the same time, watershed global events including Brexit, political shocks in the United States, COVID-19, the injustice, and inequity symbolized by the murder of George Floyd and the #MeToo movement, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and a politically weaponized backlash against ESG has created a turbulent environment. Combined with the widespread, rapid, and intensifying impact of climate change, and lingering social and economic inequalities underscore the urgency of achieving progress at scale.
During this time, BSR has pivoted to “meet the moment and build the future.” Our focus today is on achieving impact in everything we do, enabling companies to act on the connections between issues, and between business and society, and providing honest advice that leads to credible solutions. We continue to focus on our model of serving members through insight, advice, and collaboration.
To meet a changing context, we have added focus areas in sustainability governance, climate justice, nature, and equity, inclusion, and justice. We launched a Sustainable Futures Lab to inject the analysis of future scenarios into all of our work. We are taking a more deliberate effort to engage with standard setters on key initiatives shaping the “architecture” of just and sustainable business, using our voice and that of our member companies to promote ambitious standards backed by business action. Organizationally, our membership has continued to grow to well over 300 companies, and we established an organizational presence in London, Singapore, and Washington, DC.