As we celebrate BSR’s 20-year anniversary in 2012, we are reflecting on the dramatic progress that has been made in the sustainability field through partnerships between government, civil society, and the private sector. As a mission-driven organization, BSR has always been motivated by the desire to create a more just and sustainable world through collaboration with all sectors. We believe it is only through these types of partnerships that we can truly push change on some of our most systemic and entrenched social and environmental issues.

Consider the roles—as well as the opportunities and constraints—of the individual sectors: While civil society has the freedom to spur progress in areas of emerging significance that have not yet hit the current corporate agenda, it does not have the same power of the private sector to take this progress to scale. And while government can establish the policy infrastructure to encourage progress, it is only by working together that the actions of civil society and business can effect true change. At BSR, we have seen these sectors act in concert to generate new ideas and initiatives that address complex, systemic issues such as conflict minerals, the rights of international migrant workers, and women’s health in the global supply chain. Through our work with the U.S. State Department, we helped businesses in the DR-CAFTA region develop responsible labor practices as a competitiveness strategy for the region. Through BSR’s HERproject, we are encouraging businesses and their suppliers to partner with local nonprofit organizations to address women’s health concerns in the workplace. The benefits to the women are great, and there’s an equal benefit to business: The program has provided a four-to-one return on their investment in the form of increased worker productivity and reduced absenteeism. Through our CiYuan initiative in China, we see immense possibilities in businesses helping increase the knowledge and resources of NGOs to address social needs in rural and urban settings.

All of these projects have one common denominator: They are based on, and benefit from, cross-sector partnerships. In the next 20 years, it’s clear that to guarantee sustained growth, business must learn to manage natural resources and human capital. In doing so, smart business leaders understand that their essential partners lie with individuals, governments, and civil society organizations.

There’s another benefit to these partnerships that has come to light more recently in our global, 24/7 world: They give business a chance to engage the next generation of leadership. To succeed in the next couple decades, business leaders must think holistically, globally, and inclusively. An engaged leader—someone who can work collaboratively outside of the business and across sectors—will understand that accessing opportunities and new markets will take an expansive approach to decision-making. The most effective leaders will be able to anticipate changes in the marketplace and build a flexible, responsive internal culture that adapts quickly to the external environment. Insular, non-networked, internally focused companies are not yet a thing of the past—but they will be soon. Working with partners across sectors is therefore not only the best way to address complex environmental challenges or seemingly entrenched labor issues, it is a way for business to practice, learn, engage, and evolve. Looking over two decades of impactful work at BSR, I know the most important sustainability challenges require systemic solutions that draw on multiple institutions—and the individual leaders within them—working together. And now, as I look forward to the next 20 years, I remain excited and optimistic about working with our network of multinational corporations and experts in government and civil society to identify the opportunities for change and the solutions to the most urgent issues of our time.