Creating Momentum Through Collaboration

By Louden Richason



The CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, tweeted for the first time after President Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement. The tweet read, “Today’s decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world.”

Despite the actions of our government, Lloyd Blankfein and Goldman Sachs, like most companies today, formally recognize the importance of integrating sustainability, resource efficiency, and respect for human rights in their strategy and operations. With the rise of technology, emerging economies, and global business – and growing reputational risk of violations and noncompliance with regulation – we are rapidly moving towards a world of limited resources and increased transparency and accountability. External trends and laws have necessitated fundamental changes in long-term company strategy from a business, innovation, sustainability, and ethical standpoint.

BSR, the global nonprofit organization where I am interning for the summer, seeks to augment this momentum in the business world. Uniquely positioned as part advisor and part influencer, BSR leverages the resources of multiple stakeholders – businesses, governments, and foundations – to drive the sustainability conversation forward. BSR works with companies holistically to help them implement sustainability strategies, embrace transparency, and protect human rights. It uses three main strategies in working with companies: consulting, collaborative initiatives, and research.

Partnering with companies that desire to be sustainability leaders in their industry as well as with companies that need to address past human rights violations or comply with regulations, BSR consults with companies from a variety of starting points. For example, BSR supported Microsoft in understanding its risks and creating a global strategy for human rights management in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Alternatively, Freeport McMoRan, a mining company, sought BSR’s assistance in developing an approach to engage local communities. BSR’s diverse services, spanning six areas of expertise and eleven industries, cater to a wide variety of projects.

Additionally, BSR leads many collaborative initiatives of companies seeking to share best practices, address systemic challenges, and act sustainably in variety of industries. The Clean Cargo Working Group, for example, is comprised of brands, cargo carriers, and freight forwarders working to reduce the environmental impacts of transportation and shipping. Future of Internet Power, on the other hand, is a coalition of companies dedicated to procuring renewable energy to power data centers. BSR, in short, provides the platform and facilitates the outreach that makes these initiatives possible.

The final facet of the organization is its original research. Through its consulting services and collaborations, BSR is well-positioned to authoritatively speak on best practice regarding sustainability and human rights within industries. Recent research has focused on women’s safety in the workplacestrategic marketing for behavioral change, and labor disputes in Myanmar.

A significant advantage of BSR’s hybrid model of consulting, collaborative initiatives, and research is that each facet of the model has the potential to enhance the other facets. The recent report on women’s safety in the workplace, for example, could lead to consulting services for companies interested in promoting a safe working environment for women or developing policies to prevent and address sexual harassment. With enough interest, BSR could then create space for a collaborative coalition of these companies to discuss challenges and best practice.

In this way, BSR helps to bridge several major gaps, including between nonprofit advocacy and corporate response, between international and national regulation and corporate compliance, and between formal corporate sustainability and human rights policies and their implementation. This creates a balancing act, as BSR must inhabit the space between corporations and nonprofits and address the concerns of both.

Regulation and nonprofit advocacy are important, but they have their own severe limitations. For example, global nonprofits generally measure corporate behavior against principles of international law, yet countries like United States have delegitimatized the authority of international law since its creation. Think Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and the United State’s non-participation in the International Criminal Court or its opposition to the current UN initiative to create a business and human rights treaty. The problem is bigger than the actions of the United States though. Every state in the world has outlawed child labor, yet its widespread prevalence is still indisputable. The obligations of states and companies in regard to combatting modern slavery is more clearly articulated than it ever has been, yet – and despite the active campaigning by many NGOs — the number of victims from modern slavery is arguably at its highest point in history and continues to rise. Several large companies have been effectively targeted for corporate human rights violations, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most companies will never be targets of such campaigns. National law is also insufficient as many states lack the capacity to enforce such law. Regulation and NGO advocacy are certainly necessary and have led to significant changes in state and corporate actions, but, on their own, they are not enough.

BSR’s approach is different in that it engages directly with the one source (companies) that has the potential to directly reduce human rights violations. It bridges a necessary gap in supporting companies that seek to respond to allegations about human rights infringements, companies that wish to proactively avoid the risk of being targeted for such violations, and companies that want to be industry leaders in sustainability and human rights. In fact, new regulations and reports from NGOs fuel a large part of BSR’s work because companies need serious help expediting compliance and implementation. Regulations and NGO advocacy are simply not enough.

Without collaboration among all stakeholders in society, my own view is that we will not be well-positioned to confront challenges like global displacement, climate change, and food insecurity. BSR’s model of social change provides a refreshing take on the potential power of nonprofits and businesses working together towards common goals, especially when political landscapes across the world are increasingly defined by hostility, polarization, and fear.