Over the past several months, the BSR blog has featured a series of Q&As with leaders from BSR member companies who shared insights and stories about how they came to the roles they are in now, their company’s sustainability priorities, and how their business works to achieve those goals.

As this series comes to a close, I spoke with BSR Vice President Laura Gitman, who oversees BSR’s global membership strategy. Gitman began her career as a strategy consultant with Deloitte and moved on to work in various roles in sustainable development in Latin America because she wanted to have more of a direct impact on the world’s challenges. She has spent the past 11 years in a variety of roles at BSR, and she also teaches in the Bard M.B.A. in Sustainability program so that she can “shape the next generation of leaders across different functions to think with a sustainability perspective.”

Gitman discussed the insights she took away from this series and how these themes relate to her work as global head of BSR’s membership. She also shared her thoughts on the biggest changes she has seen in more than a decade working in sustainable business.

Eva Dienel: Tell us about your role at BSR and your vision for BSR’s global member network.

Laura Gitman: Membership is at the core of everything we do at BSR. We work with companies in a wide variety of different ways—from one-on-one consulting to collaborative initiatives to research and events—and membership is an important platform for sharing that work and expanding our impact as an organization.

When I think about the value of BSR membership—and what I really want companies to take away from their experience with BSR—I divide it into three categories.

The first is access to expertise: I want our members to use BSR as a resource to stay on top of emerging issues and trends and also to gain practical expertise on different topics, whether it’s human rights, climate change, supply chain sustainability, or something else entirely. Our expertise also includes deep knowledge on particular industry approaches, coupled with a blend of global and regional perspectives. I want our member companies to benefit from our investment and expertise in all these areas.

The second area I like to emphasize is collaboration, which is a fundamental part of the BSR member experience. Having been in the field for more than a decade at an organization that is coming up on its 25-year anniversary, I can say that most of the really sticky sustainability challenges and opportunities will be solved through collaboration. As a membership organization, BSR has a unique role in fostering that change. Over the past three years, we’ve doubled the number of members who participate in our collaborative initiatives, and we now have more than half our membership participating in at least one collaboration.

These collaborative platforms cut across sectors and give companies the chance to share and learn from each other. The approach of the groups varies depending on the focus. It could be a group coming together to collaborate and learn, as it is with our Human Rights Working Group, or it could be a group collaborating to create a standard or establish a shared vision, like our Future of Internet Power initiative, which has set a bold goal to power the internet with 100 percent renewable power.

The final area of focus is about networking: For us, it’s really important that companies learn from one another and that it’s not just a bi-directional membership where companies only work with and learn from BSR. To facilitate networking, we have our annual BSR Conference, and we also hold dozens of smaller events around the world, as well as webinars to allow for virtual networking.

Dienel: In this series, I spoke with leaders from 11 of BSR’s global member companies representing a diversity of regions and sectors. What were some of the insights you took away from this blog series in terms of how global companies are focusing on sustainability today?

Gitman: It was interesting for me to discover that despite the variety of sectors, geographies, and sustainability challenges and opportunities, there were some very common themes that came across in these interviews.

For me, four main themes came across:

  1. Companies are making more ambitious, longer-term goals. Goals are bolder, bigger, and more forward-looking. From almost everyone, we heard about goals that are 10 or 15 years out. Salesforce wants to power all of its operations with 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. At Hitachi, the goal is about continuous improvement. Stora Enso’s Noel Morrin, who is one of the pioneers in sustainable business, captured the notion that is driving this focus on long-term thinking: “Sustainability is about intergenerational change.”
  2. Companies are integrating sustainability into their core business. One of the most striking examples of this came from Telenor, which embedded sustainability so deeply into its core operations that the company’s corporate mission is to empower society. For some companies, integration is about getting more executives and the CEO on board, and for others it’s about making sustainability business as usual for every employee. Marks & Spencer’s Mike Barry talked about business integration “so that sustainability happens automatically when we build a new store or factory.” At AXA, where CSR was once perceived as just a reporting function, it is now so well integrated that the company’s annual corporate responsibility week engages 50,000 employees. Other companies are also integrating sustainability by including more external stakeholders into the decision-making process. Engie’s Alexandre Brailowsky spoke about the company’s goal to have 100 percent of its industrial activities covered by a professional mechanism of stakeholder engagement.
  3. Companies are pursuing large-scale collaborations to partner for change. As I noted before, collaboration is an important facet of BSR member value, and it’s exciting to hear that more companies value collaboration as well—whether it’s collaboration with industry members, government, NGOs and civil society, or other stakeholders. Facebook, which is a member of BSR’s Future of Internet Power Collaborative Initiative, is sharing data center designs that allow for more efficient computing. As Bill Weihl put it, this collaboration is about “getting together to figure out the obstacles that make it hard for companies and defining what we can do to tear down those obstacles.” Another example is AT&T, which has established three very specific goals that all involve engaging with groups outside of the company’s operations. As John Schulz put it, “In the past, our goals were mostly internal-oriented.” Now, he says, “By starting with our network and employees, and engaging our supply chain, our customers, and our communities, we can achieve savings that are much bigger than by just focusing internally.”
  4. Companies are trying to understand how they can create value, not just reduce impacts. Companies are starting to look beyond what they can do to reduce impacts in their own operations to instead focus on how they can contribute to society in a positive way. This is leading to some exciting innovation. For instance, at SABIC, Gretchen Govoni talked about how the company is analyzing greenhouse gas data to identify the biggest opportunities for sustainability. In doing this, SABIC discovered that the company could use the carbon-dioxide emissions from one facility as feedstock for another, so they created the world’s largest carbon-dioxide purification and utilization project. Companies are also integrating this focus on value creation into big goals: By 2025, Dow plans to deliver US$1 billion in value through projects that are good for business and good for ecosystems.

Dienel: How do these themes reflect what you are seeing in your work at BSR?

Gitman: These themes directly relate to what we’re seeing in our work across BSR. The first, about setting more ambitious goals, hits so close to home that we’ve made it the theme for this year’s BSR Conference: “Be Bold.”

We have seen the other themes come into play as well. Working individually with companies, I have noticed that the level of sophistication has increased greatly in my decade at BSR. Today, we’re working with almost every different business function, from strategy, to procurement, to human resources, to marketing, to operations, to product, and beyond. This speaks to the themes around integration into core business and also the opportunity companies see around creating business and societal value through sustainability.

Collaboration is another big thing we see in our work—there’s a real need and also an opportunity to make more progress through collaboration. This is always what BSR has been about; it’s what I like to call BSR’s secret sauce. It’s where we really drive systems change.

Dienel: You have been at BSR for 11 years and currently lead BSR’s global membership strategy and services. How have you seen companies’ approach to sustainability evolve over the years?

Gitman: I have seen it evolve in a few ways. When I started, there was a lot more of a focus on: Why is this important? How do I make the case? Now, we’re past that. Questions today are really more about the how: How do we do this and really drive impactful change? How do we take a sharper eye to the fact that we have been doing a lot of things for 10 years and they haven’t had the impact we have wanted? How can we be more innovative and really focus on progress we want to achieve?

The second shift I have seen is that the focus has moved from what companies are doing within their four walls to what they are doing outside their four walls, and whom they need to work with to get there—customers, competitors, governments, NGOs. Companies are taking a much broader approach.

The last big change is that there’s now a greater focus on materiality. Companies used to take an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. They felt they needed to respond to every single issue. Now there’s a much greater understanding and also acceptance of the fact that companies can’t do everything, and they really should focus on where they can have the most impact. Prioritizing is critical, and it has enabled companies to drive greater progress.

Dienel: What are you most excited about in your work with member companies?

Gitman: What I think is really exciting about BSR is that we provide a hands-on, personal approach to supporting member companies, and we also have a universal approach to the member experience, with touch points across regions, functions, industries, and issues. So even though BSR is just one organization, companies really get a lot from their relationship with us. At the same time, we gain a lot by working with such a diverse set of companies across so many issues, sectors, and geographies because we can share what we learn across our entire member network. And that creates a huge potential for progress.