Uncovering Impact

BSR CEO Aron Cramer told me his proudest day on the job was when the Paris Climate Accord was signed. During an orientation session in the first week of my internship, he explained that he knew BSR played some very small role in its adoption, even though it was impossible to define how large the influence was or through which channels specifically that influence occurred. Many of BSR’s projects produce primarily qualitative changes, and while different approaches achieve different levels of success, impact can be challenging to measure.

Although BSR works fervently toward the adoption of business strategies and policies that make positive sustainability and human rights impacts, it is frequently impossible to quantify impact or to define what “success” actually looks like. At the end of a project, staff members fill out an end-of-project report that documents how the project went and captures proxy measures of impact. In several staff meetings I’ve attended, these project reports have received a lot of discussion—it can be so difficult to tell, even weeks or months out from a project, whether a company has implemented BSR’s recommendations and whether the work had a positive impact on its business practices. Often, BSR’s work can have indirect effects, promoting ideas that encourage important but very gradual changes over time. Despite the qualitative nature of these impacts, many of BSR’s projects do spur real and lasting change in business practices.

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If the definition of success is to achieve positive impact and change, each of BSR’s four main approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. Sustainability consulting, collaborative initiatives, research, and other events and services for member companies all foster change in different ways that have varying degrees of visible impact.

Sustainability consulting work for individual companies has great potential to create change because projects focus on a company’s specific needs, ambition, and industry challenges. These companies often present a strong desire and motivation for positive change, and projects can range from industry benchmarking research to inform strategy to complex futures plans that build a company’s long-term resilience. I recently attended an interactive training on BSR’s Sustainable Futures Lab and learned how these plans are often developed collaboratively between BSR and a member company, ensuring that the company is invested in the work and has the opportunity to shape it to reflect the nuances of its business. In one human rights project with Telia Company, a global telecommunications firm, BSR conducted Human Rights Impact Assessments in six Eurasian markets that Telia was considering exiting and two European markets. These assessments analyzed Telia’s human rights risks, opportunities, and impacts related to divestment and made recommendations for how to integrate human rights into the company’s business practices. Telia implemented many of the recommendations, including conducting human rights due diligence of potential buyers and tracking progress on various issues, demonstrating tangible impact.

However, consulting projects are often confidential, and the client has the final say on whether to implement the recommendations or not. Important discoveries, strategies, and resources that are created may never be made public, especially if a company decides not to commit to the recommendations. Even when a company does commit to positive change, it can be difficult to affect an entire industry by working alone.

Collaborative initiatives seek to solve these problems by uniting multiple companies to tackle a specific issue or industry. These initiatives are often more ambitious than single-company projects and strive to share best practices, facilitate the creation of industry standards, and change the operating environment for the better. On calls with members of one of BSR’s collaborative initiatives, I heard company representatives explain that working together creates significant leverage and allows companies to be more candid about the challenges within an industry because they no longer have to speak alone. Collaborative initiatives also allow thought leaders to influence less advanced companies in a given sustainability area and promote visibility and collective action surrounding an issue. If enough important players work together, they can achieve positive change not only within leading companies, but throughout an entire industry.

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Although these efforts at first glance may seem to thus be more “successful” than consulting with individual companies, individual projects are often where thought leadership and best practices emerge, which are then able to influence a larger group. Collaborative initiatives may also inspire leadership by some companies, but others may hide behind the leaders and slide by with the bare minimum. In reality, both types of work have their challenges, but they can also be complementary and successful in the right situations.

BSR’s other two offerings, research and member services and events, have fewer direct, visible impacts on company members, but are still important for laying groundwork and can lead to more gradual changes over time. Some research is company-specific to assist with policy development, while other research is more general analysis geared toward merging theory with practical recommendations and is presented in public reports and briefs. One recent report that BSR published about Women in the Jewelry Supply Chain was designed to stimulate dialogue and debate in preparation for an upcoming conference of stakeholder companies in the jewelry supply chain. Although reports like this may not directly cause a specific industry change, they draw attention to key issues and are valuable resources for future projects.

Similarly, general BSR membership events and services facilitate exposure to critical ideas and research on sustainability and human rights, but this may result in slow, gradual changes that are difficult to measure. Still, even if direct impacts and “successes” don’t occur, membership may pave the way for other types of BSR projects and meaningful change within a company. A recent blog post notes that BSR’s more than 250 member companies include almost 20 percent of the top 50 Forbes Global 2000 companies, accounting for over 15 million employees worldwide. BSR notes that while it doesn’t have the capacity to do projects with every member company on every issue, it relies “on the amplification of impacts through our membership if we’re going to achieve our ambitious mission.”

It is a challenge to determine which of BSR’s strategies have been most successful, precisely because “success” is so difficult to measure. BSR’s approaches reinforce each other, leading to overall “impact” that may be greater than the sum of its parts: membership enables long-term engagement with companies, grant-funded research informs consulting work, and consulting work for a single company can lead to thought leadership that inspires a collaborative initiative. Even though these impacts aren’t always quantifiable or clearly defined, all four approaches contribute to long-term positive social change in the business and human rights space.

Bringing Out the Best in Business

When I arrived at BSR four weeks ago, one of the first quotes that stuck with me is that BSR is a “nonprofit that understands business.” Because of this reputation, BSR is uniquely positioned in the business and human rights space to create systemic change by balancing the needs of businesses with the ambition to create a more equitable and sustainable world. As I have learned from my colleagues over the past few weeks, companies are more likely to change when it’s clear that human rights and sustainability are good for business, and industries are more likely to change when companies work collaboratively. Both of these aspects are vital to BSR’s approach to social change.

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BSR is a global nonprofit that works on sustainable business strategies with its network of partners and over 250 member companies through consulting, collaborative initiatives, and research. BSR has eight offices across three continents and a diverse team of specialists across ten industries and six areas of expertise: Climate Change, Human Rights, Inclusive Economy, Supply Chain Sustainability, Sustainability Management, and Women’s Empowerment. In each area, BSR has a vision and a plan for businesses to reduce harm, increase positive impacts, and improve collaboration with each other and with external stakeholders. Although my main area of focus this summer is human rights, most BSR projects are complex and span multiple areas, so I’ve also been able to work on projects related to human rights in supply chains, sustainability management, and inclusive economy. Every day has been a learning experience through research on new issues, industries, and geographies.

As I have gotten to know my coworkers, I have been continually surprised by the diversity of their backgrounds—BSR has people with law degrees and MBAs, people with work experience in nonprofits and large corporations, and still others with finance, tech, and government backgrounds, from all over the world. Because of this diversity, BSR is able to understand both the business perspective and the dire need for work on issues like human rights and climate change—it holds a unique place as an intermediary. Because of this reputation, companies trust BSR.

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BSR’s position in the ecosystem makes it possible for it to work with companies at all stages of maturity in terms of their sustainable business practices. To make the biggest impact, BSR works with both sustainability leaders and companies that aren’t perfect yet but are committed to change. Diplomacy is key. As BSR’s founders declared, BSR works with both “leaders and learners, and most companies are both.” Rather than vilifying a company or industry that doesn’t have a great track record, in BSR’s view, it is more productive to collaborate with them toward sustainable solutions. In an intro session I attended on the history of BSR, I learned that companies don’t always implement everything that BSR recommends, and if they do, it might mean that the recommendations aren’t ambitious enough. This aspirational mindset encourages both “leaders and learners” to make positive strides toward best practice on an issue.

BSR makes it clear that sustainability is good for business, and collaboration is the path to systemic change. In a recent webinar with members of the Human Rights Working Group, BSR experts and guests discussed legal buy-in and human rights policies. These policies can be critical in a world where human rights and environmental abuses are increasingly visible and customers and clients demand accountability and responsibility from the businesses they support. Governments and international NGOs also have expectations about which rights and ethical practices must be upheld, and businesses that violate these suffer the consequences of bad press and expensive lawsuits. In addition to keeping stakeholders happy, developing more sustainable business strategies can make a company more profitable and resilient in the long-term.

BSR also uses its business knowledge to engage its members by staying on the edge of the most relevant and timely topics in business, sustainability, and human rights. Some of BSR’s most recent blog posts and reports center on big issues such as big data, artificial intelligence, and blockchain technology, analyzing the potential benefits for companies looking to leverage these technologies for sustainability, like increased efficiency and transparency in supply chains, while expressing caution over privacy violations and other human rights issues.

In addition to its business understanding and model, a key piece of BSR’s ability to make an impact is by encouraging collaboration and communication among its member organizations and clients. BSR’s collaborative initiatives bring together multiple companies or stakeholders to collaborate on a certain topic and establish standards around a commitment to an issue. This is particularly useful when legislative frameworks or local governments aren’t conducive to rapid and efficient change. Collaborative initiatives hold the power to achieve this systemic change because of the large influence their member companies exert when united. If multiple large companies and competitors in an industry come together, they can have a greater impact on their industry, region, and community.

For example, one project I’ve been able to contribute to is the creation of a three-year strategy for the Building Responsibly Initiative, a collaboration between six different construction and engineering companies to promote worker welfare in their supply chains. Especially in the Middle East, migrant worker welfare is complicated and can be undermined by dubious practices of recruitment agencies and subcontractors in a fiercely competitive market. A single company alone won’t be able to create systemic change but, by coming together, an entire sector of companies can have greater leverage and impact.

Another collaborative initiative that I’ve gotten insight into is the Human Rights Working Group and its efforts to help companies implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The group encourages companies and industries to look beyond the initial vision of the UN Guiding Principles to share best practices and experiences and to implement actionable items. Groups like this can be extremely transformative because they provide a space for shared dialogue and a framework for other businesses to follow in pursuit of better human rights practices.

BSR’s most powerful levers for impacting business practices and making an impact on the world are its combined understanding of business imperatives and sustainability expertise and its ability to connect and unite businesses in collaborative efforts to yield systemic change. Initiatives for sustainability and human rights can benefit everyone, including corporations. It only makes sense to undertake them together.