Each year, BSR’s Research & Innovation department produces independent, applied sustainability research to help BSR members stay ahead of the curve and to advance corporate responsibility as a whole. The team’s aim is to offer practical solutions that will address the key sustainability challenges of today and tomorrow, with insights informed by BSR’s consulting work, interviews with business leaders, and our active participation in global initiatives that address sustainability issues for the private sector.

Here, Research & Innovation Director Faris Natour talks about the team’s agenda for 2010.

What are your main focus areas for 2010?

We plan on pursuing three main research initiatives. First, we’ll address the challenges and opportunities businesses face as they operate in a world increasingly defined by natural resource constraints. Under this theme, we will explore sustainable consumption, as well as climate-adaptation strategies, and tools that value and assess ecosystem services.

Second, we will continue to help companies integrate human rights throughout their business. We are encouraged by the number of our projects with companies from sectors that haven’t traditionally focused on human rights issues beyond addressing labor rights in their supply chains. The standard for managing human rights impacts, led by UN Special Representative John Ruggie, is still evolving, and BSR will continue to contribute to that important process.

Third, we will cover what we consider core corporate social responsibility (CSR) topics, including the latest innovations in reporting and stakeholder engagement.

BSR has been talking a lot about sustainable consumption. Under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer chaired a “Global Agenda Council” on this subject in Dubai, and he also wrote on the subject for an article in the Insight. Why is sustainable consumption such an important subject this year?

It’s pretty simple. We cannot continue on the path we’re on. Sustainable consumption is not just an aspirational vision; it’s an imperative. With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and a rapidly rising global middle class, it’s clear that we can’t continue to consume at the levels we do in North America and Europe. For business, this is actually a significant opportunity to innovate new products, services, and business models—essentially a new economic model of consumption and production.

Achieving this will take collaboration from all sides—business, government, and consumers—and we think there is an opportunity for business to take the lead.

How do you determine the “core CSR” topics that you cover?

We have a lot of different opportunities to engage with our members, at our annual Conference, through our monthly virtual events, and through our working groups and consulting projects. Based on these interactions, we extract the best—and sometimes painful—lessons and experiences, which we believe are the core issues facing our members around the world. Our goal in covering these topics is to turn best practice into standard practice. At the same time, our research helps us stay ahead of the curve. We identify the latest CSR trends and apply them to our consulting work, so it’s a self-reinforcing process.

How will you be covering these subjects throughout the year?

At BSR, we have a lot of different avenues to get our research in front of companies and begin a dialogue. Our research publications, thought pieces in the BSR Insight, perspectives in the BSR blog, and our monthly Sustainability Matters webinar discussions all provide avenues for us to share our research. We’ll also dive deeper into many of these subjects at the BSR Conference 2010 (November 2 to 5 in New York), where we’ll engage with companies during sessions, training seminars, and working groups.

Tell us about Research & Innovation highlights from 2009.

I was particularly excited to see the progress we made toward our goal of bringing companies from more sectors and regions into the business and human rights debate. With a combination of short research pieces and hands-on workshops, we were able to work with companies in sectors as varied as consumer products, entertainment, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, beverages, and technology to develop their human rights strategies.

What’s your process for developing the Research agenda each year?

We always start with what we learned from our work the previous year and ask ourselves, where do we go from here? We talk to our industry leads and regional heads, and they share themes they’ve heard from our members and other clients throughout the year. We also have an editorial council, with representatives from all of BSR’s offices and industry teams, which meets every other month to discuss projects they’re working on, questions they’re struggling with, and news and trends that are shaping their thinking.

How do you engage with companies, either through your research, or in your agenda-setting?

Research at BSR is linked into all other aspects of our work, including consulting, events, and working groups. So all of us, working on a research project, engage with companies on the same issues at the same time. In addition to relying on our informal networks, we also do formal interviews for our major research projects, both with companies and with “stakeholders.”

We always look for ways to connect with more companies—through surveys, the comment section on our blog, and other opportunities. And we love to hear from our members: What would you like us to cover, what are you struggling with, what has worked well? My email is fnatour@bsr.org!

In addition to serving member companies by providing forward-looking research on trends, your team has a public mission as well, to advance sustainable business. Given this context, how do you define success?

BSR’s mission is to work with business to create a just and sustainable world. We won’t get there overnight, but I think we all know what a just and sustainable world would look like, and we need to keep that goal in mind in everything we do.

It’s a step-by-step approach, but the first, biggest step we can take is to catalyze action by business. Take the complex topic of ecosystem services: Through our research, we enabled a small group of companies to help push the incorporation of ecosystem services into corporate decision-making and shape society’s understanding of how we all impact and depend on ecosystem services. This group is now partnering with U.S. government agencies to conduct what may be the first comparative assessment of multiple tools, which will go a long way toward accounting for natural assets that have been traditionally overlooked in both public and corporate balance sheets. That’s how I define success.