Erika George, Professor of Law, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah

Meeting the challenge of resource scarcity and motivating consumers to change behavior will require action. Bringing together the correct set of competencies to take on these challenges could result in even greater opportunities for companies to create solutions and value over the long term. Last week, as I listened to and learned from colleagues at the BSR Conference 2012, my thoughts revolved around three Cs: connection, collaboration, and creation. Advancing sustainability will require us to come full circle to consider the full impacts of our choices.

Connection

Connections are everywhere in the world of sustainability. The connections between resource scarcity and consumption patterns were highlighted in a Thursday breakout, “Sustainable Consumption: Exploration and Opportunities.” During this discussion, participants explored the importance of collaboration to increase awareness of the lifecycle of products we use most, and the process through which companies can engineer significant change in the culture of consumption. A Wednesday breakout session, “The Search for Sustainable Products: Collaboration and Competition,” advised that companies must prepare for growing numbers of consumers to demand products that are better for the planet. This discussion emphasized the connection between having metrics to measure and drive choices.

Collaboration

Collaboration can create the leverage necessary for changing certain cultures and practices. During a plenary address on Thursday, Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University emphasized the importance of collaborations across sectors, citing as an example the Department of State’s recent efforts to work with private companies and civil society to implement initiatives to promote peace and development in areas of unrest. On Wednesday, during “Recognizing the Risks: Modern-Day Slavery and Human Trafficking in the Supply Chain,” panelists emphasized how collaborations such as the recent Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (gBCAT) can help address atrocities that reach deep down the links of complex and layered supply chains.

Creation

Several sessions addressed the importance of identifying capabilities necessary to create leaders with competencies to meet the challenges of the future. Presentations provided in Thursday’s “Sustainability and Leadership Competencies” session made a compelling case for upgrading leadership capabilities in ways that engage stakeholders and address and shape expectations. Before that, on Tuesday, a pre-conference training devoted to innovative stakeholder engagement encouraged participants to reach beyond the usual partner organizations and find entities that can contribute new knowledge.

Going forward we must challenge ourselves to answer urgent questions regarding our role in the cycle of sustainability: Some of these questions are straightforward:

  • What are the consequences of our choices?
  • What can we contribute to the creation of a more just and sustainable future?
  • What capabilities must we cultivate to meet challenges, be equipped for change, and create value?

Other questions are more personally probing, like one posed by creative artist will.i.am during a Thursday session: Is waste considered “waste” because we wasted an opportunity?

With 2012 marking BSR’s 20th anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on where we have been as a sustainability community, what challenges we face today, and where we are headed. BSR started with an idea of business contributing the creation of a more just and sustainable world. Over the years, actions taken by members of the BSR community are moving this idea closer to reality.  We must not waste the opportunity today presents. I left the BSR Conference 2012 inspired to act now.

Erika George is the author of Incorporating Rights: Human Dignity, Corporate Responsibility and Conscious Community, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.