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The Future of Sustainable Business

Tuesday August 21, 2018

For more than 25 years, BSR has been considering the systemic changes that are shaping the world.  This paper offers our thinking on where to go next. It also serves as an invitation to join us as we work to shape a new agenda, new approach, and a new voice for business that will help companies to anticipate the challenges and embrace the opportunities of the future.

Why Read This?

Looking back is important; there is much to learn. But it is even more essential to look ahead: BSR, and the sustainable business movement more broadly, have always been about the future, and we must maintain that focus.

Business as usual won’t get the job done—and sustainability as usual won’t suffice. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, build truly fair and inclusive economic growth, and navigate a radically reshaped world, it is time for change. We have within our grasp the ability to reorient business and turn the tide on climate change, deliver economic opportunity for all, and build connected societies in which all people can live in dignity and with respect. This paper offers our thinking on where to go next.

How the World Is Changing Today

Businesses that thrive in the future will be those that figure out how to harness these changes to address real human needs—placing sustainability at the heart of business strategy.

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Climate Change

The turbulent planetary changes we have unleashed—and our collective response or lack thereof.

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Powerful new technologies that are poised to redefine the nature of work and create urgent philosophical questions about humanity.

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Structural Economic Change

Mounting pressure to equitably meet the needs of a growing, urbanizing global population at a time of massive change.

The Implications for Business

The wave of changes sweeping our world is coalescing to create a new operating environment for business. In BSR’s 25-year history, there has never been a time when companies everywhere have faced such all-encompassing change. Nearly every business we know is asking itself fundamental questions about the nature, shape, and future of its business.

Big questions from companies

Redefining Sustainable Business: New Agenda, New Approach, New Advocacy

We believe it is time to redefine sustainable business. It is time for business and other partners to embrace new issues, new ways of pursuing sustainability, and a new—and more assertive—voice. The shifts in the environment, technology, and economics suggest the need to emphasize a new set of issues. Moreover, the variations on familiar topics present different questions today and will continue to do so into the next decade.

New Agenda

First, business needs a new agenda. This should include areas where sustainability issues have converged with business issues and where new topics have emerged, and it should allow for the reinvention of sustainability to meet the needs of a new reality. The starting point for these topics is the need to face head on the three systemic changes affecting business: climate change, technological innovation, and the structural economic change.

These conditions create three big issue sets that we believe need to be front and center on the business agenda—not only for sustainability reasons, but because these questions will be increasingly central to business performance. They will dominate the global public debate. And they will define the economic vitality of people, communities, and the world.

Sustainable business leadership will come to be defined by how well companies approach the following three issues:

New Approach

In addition to a new agenda, we also believe that it is time for a new approach by sustainability leaders. In our changing world, new skills will be even more important parts of the puzzle. Helping companies navigate the emerging world means building and contributing to resilient business strategies, not simply integrating sustainability into business strategies built by others.

We have outlined this approach in great detail in our report, Redefining Sustainable Business: Management for a Rapidly Changing World. This report provides a blueprint for putting sustainability at the center of business to enable companies to play their full part in the creation of a just and sustainable world. It focuses on how sustainability is implemented inside companies.

New Advocacy

In many parts of the world, societies are growing more fragmented, and the rapid pace of change is increasing a sense of disconnection for many people. Often, governments are slow to adapt to changing conditions. It is crucial that companies advocate for outcomes that leverage all of the changes we are discussing for broad social benefit.

Business will have the platform to play this role only if it champions an agenda that resonates with the public, and only if it is seen to be acting for the benefit of the greater good—for reasons that go beyond short-term financial gain. The payoff for business is substantial: the opportunity to help build support for progress on crucial issues, the creation of a more predictable operating environment, and, ideally, the restoration of trust.

What’s Next

This action agenda and plan will play a key role in creating and scaling the projects and collaborative initiatives that will power BSR’s own strategy and impact through 2025. We have engaged our members in scenario planning this year, and this will be a major focus of The BSR Conference 2018: A New Blueprint for Business. If you’re interested in talking to us about these ideas, please contact us.

Help Us Shape the Future

The Future of Sustainable Business report cover

To read more about our perspective on The Future of Sustainable Business, download the report.


Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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