In his opening address at the BSR Conference 2011, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore talked about the “functional insanity” of CEOs and CFOs who choose short-term gains over long-term sustainability. He referenced a study in which these leaders were asked what they would do if they were given a chance to make an investment that would increase their company’s profitability and sustainability—with the catch being that they would miss their quarterly targets. Eighty percent said they would not make the investment.
Yet in his conversation with BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer after his address, Gore remarked that he is optimistic. He noted the business community’s appreciation for the scale of the world’s problems. And he suggested that we can do something about them. “One plea to you,” he said, “Allow yourselves to feel passionate about the mission that BSR represents. You can have an enormous impact. That is really my basis for hope.”
I am hopeful as well. Throughout the Conference, it was evident that we are in a moment of tremendous change—and we are in the position to make change for good. The resounding theme I heard in conversations and in sessions was one of empowerment: We are empowered as individuals, as companies, and as industries to challenge the systemic problems of the day with our own collective intellect and demand new ways of operating.
In his address, Dr. Dean Ornish shared a simple story with profound meaning: In this era of high-tech medicine, the most effective remedy is not the shiny surgical equipment or expensive drug, it’s the tools we all have access to—what we eat, and how we choose to live our lives. He also related this to the idea of sustainability: “You must be personally sustainable to be globally sustainable.” In other words, what’s good for you is good for the planet.
Strauss Group Chairperson Ofra Strauss, who recently had protestors camped out on her front lawn, had another perspective on why this is personal. With consumers, she said, her company is “there every day, in their homes.” Referring to the protests, she said: “It’s personal, it’s strong, and the accusations are not something I can say, ‘It doesn’t ring a bell.’ It does.” With this in mind, she engaged the protestors and spent the next seven hours talking to them and hearing their perspectives.
This idea of empowering people is important at the company level as well. Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn, who has around 12,000 Twitter followers, talked about gleaning insights from employees, whom he refers to as the “lifeblood” of his company. That is why the company made creating an “inspired and engaged workforce” the first pillar of its sustainability strategy. “They bring forward great ideas and insights, and we put resources against it,” Dunn said. “I tell my executives not to see how it works but to make it work.”
Empowering the company is also about integrating sustainable practices throughout all of the business’ core functions. This came to life in a session on how to embed human rights at the “operational level.” BSR’s Human Rights Director Faris Natour shared his insights on how to do this effectively by training employees on policies, risks, and opportunities; providing incentives for good performance or the completion of specific tasks; and supporting staff ownership of human rights programs.
This idea was applied to innovation in a session led by BSR Senior Vice President Eric Olson and Advisory Services Director Ted Howes. Exploring ways that companies can create space for innovation, Howes explained that managers can design interactions between employees to reveal the internal insights that already exist within companies. “Whenever you are designing programs to engage employees or customers, they will tell you when you have the right answer,” Howes said.
At the industry level, empowerment comes in the form of collaboration: working together to collect data, create standards, share best practices, and more. These concepts were illuminated in sessions on global logistics infrastructure, human trafficking, and conflict minerals.
In “Networks and Nodes: The Future of Moving Stuff,” participants talked about the necessity of collaboration among carriers, shippers, ports, terminals, and logistics providers to improve environmental performance. For instance, at Nike, collaboration begins at the factory level, where many different brands work at one site. These brands then collaborate with the same logistics providers, who help coordinate distribution. Nike also works with carriers to manage waste and emissions along the production of its wares.
Likewise, progress on the complex issue of conflict minerals can be addressed only when companies within and across industries work together. “We are trying to figure out not just how to address this through compliance, but also how to provide meaningful information to our customers, the public, and the investment community,” said Jennifer Prisco, global procurement council at TE Connectivity.
Equally important are the partnerships that span both industries and sectors. In a session on combating human trafficking, representatives from the U.S. State Department, Hilton Hotels Worldwide, and the Polaris Project shared information on how to define the issue of trafficking as well as how leading companies are taking measures to ensure that trafficking is not enabled by their supply chains or other activities.
But to make progress on sustainability on a truly global scale means recognizing the importance of society. Today, with more than 5 billion mobile subscribers, technology has empowered more people than ever before. Regardless of whether we believe the messages, we need to listen to these voices—a sentiment championed by I³ speaker Ingrid Srinath, secretary general of CIVICUS.
Srinath posed the question of whether we want to live in a consensus-based society or a society whose decisions are delivered from the top down. For business, trust is the key currency in a consensus-based society. This requires companies to be purpose-driven and to attach meaning to what they do in order to be effective. Trust and purpose often provide a company’s license to operate.
In the end, at this time of momentous change, progress starts with the individual. It starts with you. As my colleague Aron Cramer said in his closing remarks, we have the opportunity to not just redefine but also to rediscover leadership. Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito fittingly said, “Dreaming big or dreaming small takes the same amount of energy, so why not dream big?”
So our challenge to you, as you return to work this week, is to dream big and sail fearlessly into the future. Make great choices. As Al Gore put it: “We have a choice to make now: You are a key part of the solution. We have everything we need to succeed. Always remember that the will to act is itself a renewable resource.”