We just wrapped up a great week in New York at the BSR Conference 2010, where our chosen theme of “Innovate. Integrate. Inspire.” (or I³) played out on the plenary stage and in dozens of breakout sessions with more than 1,100 participants on topics ranging from the future of food to the role of business in promoting human rights.

Here are a few highlights—and the key takeaways—from the event:

  • Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin made the case for all three “I’s” in her plenary address on the need for systemic answers to the “wicked problems” confronting us—answers that will require the harnessing of new technologies as well as unusual partnerships between the public and private sectors.
  • The topic of innovation was at the center of several sessions that called on business to “shape, don’t wait” when it comes to tackling sustainability challenges. Don’t wait for policy, because policy often comes too late—whether in the case of climate change, privacy, or conflict minerals. Don’t wait for customers, either, because the lead times and complexity of the environmental and social issues we face may not show up clearly in traditional consumer research until it is too late for effective action.
  • The importance of integration was also demonstrated in a number of sessions with companies for whom sustainability is core business rather than as an isolated special initiative or pilot project.
  • Inspiration came in many forms at the Conference this year, from the personal stories of Julia Ormond, founder and president of the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking, and Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International—and their efforts to combat human slavery and oppression—as well as from companies that are leveraging individual action and commitment to shape the sustainability movement.

Systemic Answers for Wicked Problems

In her plenary address, Dr. Rodin described Rockefeller’s efforts to fund the capacity of companies and other organizations to build resilience for their customers and communities. Businesses, too, have been driven—by globalizing markets, urbanizing landscapes, and social and economic dislocations—to think more systemically and acknowledge the interconnections between multiple players within society, from regulators and individual communities to media outlets and our technology infrastructure. For example:

  • The virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, founder of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, described monitoring connections between people’s behavior through “viral chatter.” Technologies such as Google Trends, Twitter, and Facebook can reveal patterns in people’s behaviors, and act as early warning signs for the spread of global diseases.
  • Participants in our session on responsible sourcing and conflict minerals recognized conflict minerals as a “wicked problem” without a clear-cut solution. While regulation has built awareness of the problem, the solution won’t come from government alone—they need the information from NGOs and companies to help inform effective regulation.
  • Panelists in the session “Green ICT: Reality or Virtual Reality?” discussed the importance of thinking in terms of overall systems impact, as company policies, government regulations, and industry-wide standards all play a role in ensuring that the “rebound” and “displaced” effects of new technology solutions are taken into account.

Shape, Don’t Wait

When it comes to tackling the challenges of sustainable consumption, driving a new health revolution, or engaging with public policy, attendees this year recognized that companies are uniquely positioned to provide the innovation and resources that will help ensure success over time.

  • When asked about his company’s efforts to shape public policy, Monsanto Chairman, President, and CEO Hugh Grant made the point that, while important, policy development takes too long and is subject to too many unpredictable influences to play a driving role in corporate sustainability strategy.
  • Rick Rommel, senior vice president at Best Buy, would surely agree. In a session entitled “Betting on Disruption,” Rick stated that his company “doesn’t just deal with or harness technological disruptions ... we are increasingly trying to help shape these disruptions,” and went on to describe the retailer’s innovative approach to incubating new customer solutions.
  • A similar theme was sounded in our two-hour session on the topic of “Leading as Well as Listening: Building Demand for Sustainable Products,” in which representatives from Marks & Spencer, IKEA, Sodexo, and IDEO described their approaches to proactively building demand for more sustainable products and practices, in advance of any clear signals from their customers.

Sustainability is Core Business

A wide range of speakers from the worlds of investment to supply chain management demonstrated the ways that yesterday’s sustainability concerns have become today’s core competitive and risk management issues. For many companies, sustainability is by necessity becoming embedded across all parts of the organization, including marketing, operations, product design, and sourcing.

  • In discussing his new book Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business Success in a Fast-Changing World, BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer said, “The rapid change taking place around the world is making sustainability an inevitable and fundamental part of business,” and described the book’s central thesis—supported by specific cases in the developed and developing worlds—that someday soon we will come to know “sustainable excellence” as simply excellence.

Leveraging Individual Action

When people feel passionate about a company’s mission and values, they are engaged in jobs, and companies have an easier time attracting and retaining high quality employees. Related to this, technology today gives us the ability to leverage individual action.

Inspiring individuals and harnessing their behaviors to address sustainability concerns is potentially the fastest and most efficient way to create lasting societal change. Companies that find ways to harness the power of individual employees can themselves be a force for change by developing and distributing effective messaging to motivate action. Some specific comments included the following:

I hope you enjoyed these and other sessions—not to mention the hallway conversations, dinners, and networking events—as much as we did. We look forward to seeing you at the BSR Conference 2011, November 1-4 in San Francisco.

To read session summaries and watch video highlights from all of the BSR Conference 2010, visit www.bsr.org/conference.

  • In our session “The Road from Politics to Sustainability,” Peter Knight, president of Generation Investment Management, noted that “the investment world is going to be dictated by sustainability in the next 50 years. The overall trend is unmistakable.”
  • Salbi took this line one step further in her inspiring speech: “I think of this not as business for social responsibility but rather business as social responsibility.”
    • Avon Chairman and CEO Andrea Jung described the role of the CEO in terms of ensuring coherence between vision and implementation, and enabling individual employees to carry it forward.
    • Picking up on this theme in his conversation with Dov Seidman, founder and CEO of LRN, BSR Board Chairman Mats Lederhausen said that “running a business is ultimately about managing emotional and spiritual human energy.” Both speakers acknowledged that our ability to grow companies depends on the ability to put values back at the center of business.
    • Finally, in her closing plenary session on Friday, Harriett Pearson, vice president, security counsel, and chief privacy officer of IBM said: “The internet is challenging the nation-state and the sovereignty of governments everywhere. …The role of the individual has changed. It is less about us as victims and powerless. Now, we have much more power to change things.”