Observations from BSR 2015


This year’s BSR conference, held last week in San Francisco, brought together global business, sustainability and civil society leaders to engage in building a resilient future. With sessions such as “How to Set—and Implement—Science-Based Climate Targets” and speakers including Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation and Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer at Nike, Inc., the event combined actionable insights for practitioners with inspirational conversations from the foremost minds in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) space. Themed Resilient Business, Resilient World, this year’s conference left me with three major takeaways:

Resilient Business
Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR, used a data point that was new to me – 75 percent of today’s S&P 500 won’t exist in 2032. If Cramer’s statistic holds true, change is coming for big businesses.

We’ve heard a lot of concerns about banks being too big to fail; I believe big and failure will become more commonplace in the years to come. Why? Organizations are too slow to change, too timid to embrace trends and reshape business models for growth in ways that may be quite different than how they look today. With the power of technology, change can come fast. Just look at Uber and its impact on what seemed to be a stable, stalwart of mobility, the taxi; or Airbnb and its disruption of the hospitality industry. When it comes right down to it, many legacy brands will either change willingly or be forced to change in the decades ahead of us. An undercurrent of conversation throughout the conference was centered on the powerful disruptors that are changing entrenched business interests.

Beyond what gets sold by businesses and how those transactions take place, another trend for business will be a deeper focus on CSR. Tomorrow’s leaders will be those companies that embed CSR deeply within their businesses and brands. As Robert Reich said, successful businesses of the future will be those that are constantly looking for opportunities to do well by doing good in the world.

Resilient Leadership
The days of the business dictator (even the benevolent one) appear to be numbered. Tomorrow’s leader is not going to lead through command and control, but rather through listening, connecting and collaborating. Leaders will need to engage employees from all sides of an organization in order to make true progress.

These skills are inherently more female-leaning than male-leaning, so perhaps there is room for optimism that we may finally see real cracks in the glass ceiling that has kept women underpaid and underrepresented for far too long.

As Melanne Verveer said, it’s time to close the gender gap to unlock the potential of half the world’s population -- women and girls.

Here BSR led by example by being the first CSR conference I’ve ever attended where over 50 percent of the speakers were women. 

Resilient Climate
There was a healthy dose of optimism at BSR about what many saw as a vastly changed climate landscape.

While some remain skeptical, there still is great optimism that momentum is shifting and meaningful actions are beginning to take shape. China and the U.S. have set relatively ambitious targets. Dialogue between most and least developed nations is becoming more focused and action oriented. And the private sector is stepping up with collaborations, commitments and, to a certain degree, policy advocacy. 

Meaningful discussions are taking shape in mainstream forums about pricing carbon, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and investing in adaptation measures that will help us to cope with the realities of climate change that we are already facing today.

Henri de Castries, CEO of AXA, had perhaps the strongest statement on climate that I heard at the conference. As an insurer, he said a two degree world is insurable, a four degree world will not be. 80 percent of the world’s wealth lives within 50 miles of a coast line. If we permit temperatures to rise above two degrees, this wealth will be wiped out. As another person stated, “the climate hasn’t waited as we’ve debated.”

In a time of intense change and evolution in business and the world, it will be those businesses with the foresight to flex muscles beyond what may have gotten them where they are today. Organizations that continue with the status quo simply won’t be set up for continued growth in the future.

- Lisa Manley, Executive Vice President, CSR Strategy

Back to Insights