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.