Finding Impact Beyond Visibility

By Louden Richason



Of the approaches your organization has taken to achieving change, which have been more successful, and which have been less so?

As an organization that uses multiple approaches in its work with companies, BSR must balance the highly visible impacts of collaboration with the sometimes less visible but necessary work of raising awareness and identifying emerging human rights and sustainability issues. At first glance, I considered collaborative approaches to be by far the most effective means for enacting change. However, after a couple of months at BSR, I have realized that collaboration and consulting are not only both necessary but in fact complementary, especially over a long-term time horizon.

The potential benefits of collaborative initiatives in the corporate social responsibility space are clear – representatives from companies can use their collective expertise to share challenges and best practices, as well as reach consensus for standards and expectations moving forward. After all, social and environmental commitments are much less risky when one’s industry peers are upholding the same standards.

Michael Karimian, Human Rights Program Manager at Microsoft Corporation, expresses this in his praise of BSR’s Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), “What BSR gives us through the HRWG is the opportunity to share our challenges and our best practices, but best of all for Microsoft, an opportunity to learn from our fellow members to create new solutions.” In this respect, collaboration can accelerate meaningful industry-wide impacts and innovation.

BSR has facilitated a significant amount of change through its collaborative initiatives. For example:


    • The Future of Internet Power initiative has led to commitments from more than 20 data-center-using technology companies to source 100 percent renewable energy.
    • The Clean Cargo Working Group is composed of 23 ocean carriers dedicated to environmental performance improvement in marine container transport through measurement, evaluation, and reporting. The group represents approximately 85 percent of the global ocean container capacity.
    • The Maritime Anti-Corruption Network consists of over 80 corporations committed to achieving a maritime industry free of corruption that enables fair trade.

As an economics major interested in decision-making, I also recognize the challenges of collaboration. At its worst, collaboration provides participants with a convenient façade to make it appear that members are dedicated to working on a specific issue when in fact they are not.

Game theory illustrates why this can happen: in a group, a rational decision maker benefits the most if he or she agrees to a consensus and then reneges on his or her commitments in practice.

However, despite the potential shortcomings of collective action, I remain optimistic. BSR’s collaborative work is structured in two key ways that can help avoid many of these:


    1. Long-term time horizons to build trust: BSR facilitates initiatives over long-term time horizons. This decreases the benefit for a company to renege on a commitment significantly, as companies will lose legitimacy and representation in the group for noncompliance. The short-term benefit of reneging will likely be overshadowed when noncompliance is discovered. Over the long term, companies can also begin to trust each other, overcoming another major issue in a game theory framework.
    1. Shared interest: Members of collaborations are committed to working on a single issue, so their interests overall are often quite aligned from the outset. Conflicting interests inherently limit the potential for collaboration.

BSR’s other main approach to affecting change, tailored consulting services, can have a much less visible impact. Companies hire BSR to help assess risk and identify opportunities related to a variety of social and environmental issues. Unlike its collaborations, much of BSR’s consulting work is confidential. Typical consulting projects include assessments, stakeholder engagements, corporate strategy, implementation support, and reporting support.

It can be tempting to think consulting has a less meaningful impact because of its scale (usually one company) and the inherent limitations in the structure of consulting – leaving the company as the final decision-maker in choosing whether to implement a recommendation. Additionally, compared to collaboration, it is more difficult to prove causation between services offered and results achieved. The first consulting project for a company, which in the human rights space often consists of a human rights risk assessment, can sometimes do little more than raise awareness within a company. A concrete, widely implemented policy to address an issue that has logical metrics to assess its effectiveness might not arise until much later, after BSR has provided additional services for the company or people within company begin to reconsider the initial recommendations.

Success of consulting services may be much less visible, but consulting nevertheless plays a major role in identifying new issues and influencing the thinking of people within companies over time. Moreover, BSR’s collaborative work often is shaped by the learnings from its consulting work: these initiatives come from a mutual, often progressively acquired desire by many companies to achieve a certain goal. Though that desire can stem from regulation, it is also stems from awareness within companies.

BSR’s work with the recently expanded Global Coalition Against Human Trafficking (gBCAT), for example, is much less about compliance and policy creation than about the desire of people within companies to help eradicate modern slavery in a meaningful way. This desire, in my opinion, stems from awareness raising over time; in this case about the potential risks of human trafficking in a company’s supply chain.

Consulting and collaboration have their limits in affecting social change, certainly. But both approaches have extraordinary potential to contribute to a more inclusive, environmentally and socially conscious world. Collaboration can be more visible, as it can lead to innovative solutions and industry standards. But consulting is also necessary, as it lays the foundations for awareness of and collective desire to address an issue.