BSR’s annual conference launched yesterday with a fiery speech by Al Gore urging companies to do even more on the sustainability and transparency fronts. Later in the morning BSR, led by President and CEO Aron Cramer, held a media event announcing the results of a global business survey poll that reveals sustainability, in fact, ranks highly within companies’ core strategies and operations.
The survey, a joint project of BSR and GlobeScan, revealed that while water stewardship had a huge increase in the proportion of poll respondents naming it as a very significant priority, the top priority this year is human rights. Climate change and workers’ rights also ranked highly as concerns within this survey. While climate change had long been the number one priority of large global businesses in BSR’s surveys, human rights surpassed it for the first time.
The survey of nearly 500 business leaders who responded from BSR’s international network of 300 member companies revealed additional compelling trends:
1) Despite global recession and stagnation, many companies are still maintaining or increasing their sustainability integration programs. The motivation varies: cost savings, consumer demands for more responsibility and transparency about the sources of companies’ products and services and enhanced brand value are the key factors driving increased attention on sustainability.
2) Innovation is an enormously powerful outcome of an invigorated focus on sustainability.
3) Companies view sustainability as “future-proofing” their business at a time of economic volatility, increased resource depletion and the increased prices of raw materials–a theme of Gore’s speech earlier in the day.
Whether or not companies and their executives wish to acknowledge a certain growing global movement, the Occupy Wall Street protests and kindred demonstrations around the world have also had an impact on how companies can work with their stakeholders and within their communities. Over half of the survey’s respondents indicated that increasing transparency of business practices, as well as measuring and demonstrating positive social and environmental impacts, were both important actions that companies can and should take during the upcoming year.
While many corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability advocates currently exude gloom and doom, BSR’s respondents are optimistic that their peer companies will increasingly move towards more sustainable business practices. Only 16 percent of those surveyed were pessimistic about sustainability’s future over the next five years; 84 percent, in fact, were very or somewhat optimistic.
Curiously, BSR’s member companies have a positive view of the consumer products, food and information technology sectors, stating that they were the most responsible on the sustainability front–even when survey data excludes the mentions within one’s own industry. Energy and transportation companies are not far behind; heavy manufacturing, financial services, and media companies ranked dead last.
The takeaway of the survey, and the conference, is that business has a huge role in moving society towards an increasing awareness of sustainability and human rights issues. At a time when government is failing society at many levels, and politicians are determined to score points instead of developing policy, business has an opportunity to lead. The greater truth is that businesses are often at the forefront of the sustainability debate. More executives like AB InBev’s Carlos Brito and AutoDesk’s Carl Bass are speaking out on what works and why their competitors need to follow their lead. Their employees, meanwhile, are pushing the boundaries of innovation to heights that many of us cannot even wrap our heads around. Look for 2012 to be a year of progress, not frustration, no matter what happens in Sacramento, Washington, or Brussels. And watch for a convergence between innovation and sustainability, too.