Note: This article is an excerpt from BSR's 20th anniversary Report, "BSR at 20: Accelerating Progress." As BSR celebrates its 20th year—and its 20th Conference, which starts today—sustainability has entered the mainstream. Businesses and institutions around the globe are working to create an economy that thrives within planetary boundaries and enables all of the world's people to lead dignified, prosperous lives. Turning this vision into reality is the central challenge of the 21st century.

Where We've Come From

As we reflect on the past 20 years, it seems that everything has changed, and nothing has changed. On one hand, signs of progress are everywhere. Hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty. Businesses everywhere have embraced sustainability. Consumers, investors, and governments can now access vastly more information on companies' sustainability performance, allowing them to reward the leaders. Collaboration among businesses and NGOs, once taboo, is now considered normal. And where companies once saw "CSR" as risk mitigation, many now view sustainability as the greatest of all innovation opportunities, and new technologies offer the promise of quantum leaps forward. All this is cause for optimism.

And yet.

Twenty years after the initial Earth Summit, progress is clearly insufficient. Our planet continues to warm, with the risk of irredeemable change due to feedback loops increasing every year. Deforestation proceeds. It's unlikely we'll achieve even half of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The number of water-stressed regions grows annually. We are consuming natural resources at a rate far faster than nature's ability to regenerate. And governments have largely abdicated responsibility for promoting low-carbon economic growth, wilting in the face of the global financial crisis. And despite progress, too many people lack access to basic human needs, and discrimination remains widespread. By many objective measures, progress is far too slow.

In an interview for the BSR Report, one business leader, Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen, put these contradictory trends in perspective. "Corporate responsibility is nothing different than anything else," he told us. "If you look forward, your projections are always wrong. If you look backward, you're always amazed by how much is achieved."

In that light, while it's interesting to acknowledge what we didn't achieve in the past, it's much more important to focus on what we can do to make even more progress in the future. With new thinking and collaboration, we can transform our world.

Where We Need To Go

Our task is no longer about defining the challenge; it is about meeting the challenge. We don't need more roadmaps; we need to move faster toward the destination. It's time to fast forward.

The path ahead is fundamentally different than the one we have traveled. During BSR's first decade, our primary challenge was to raise awareness in the business community about the importance of sustainability. Throughout our second decade, much of our time has been devoted to integration: weaving social and environmental approaches into innovative business strategy and operations. While integration remains crucial, it has not gone far enough; we need to redouble our efforts. What will that take? More substantial progress depends on change not only inside individual companies, but also within entire systems. The era of the hermetically sealed, vertically integrated company is long gone. Every business, in every part of the world, operates within a web of systems: economic, cultural, political, and natural. Every business relies on networks of suppliers, customers, and investors.

In the decade ahead, the solutions we need to achieve our goals must be systemic. And while we have seen numerous collaborative efforts in recent years, even the most creative experiments and demonstration projects will not meet the scale of the challenge. In the BSR Report, we outline the four building blocks of change we believe are central to accelerating our progress:

  1. Integrated business models: the nature and objectives of individual companies
  2. Financial markets that promote long-term value: the markets that shape the way investments are made and value is defined
  3. New frontiers of collaboration: the collaborative efforts to achieve systems change
  4. Empowered individuals and connected communities: the world of ever more empowered individuals and connected communities

It may be true that everything has changed and nothing has changed, but at BSR, we remain committed to the principles on which our organization was founded: a just and sustainable world for all.

Those of us who have worked on sustainability have changed the conversation from business as usual to an active debate about what a fully and properly functioning economy should deliver. This is a great accomplishment. But we would rather accelerate that progress than celebrate our success. Read the full BSR Report at www.bsr.org/report. Case studies about BSR's work are available at www.bsr.org/casestudies.