Leadership Profile: Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR
Aron joined BSR in 1995 as the founding director of its Business and Human Rights Program, and later opened BSR’s Paris office in 2002, where he worked until becoming President and CEO in 2004. Aron serves on advisory boards to CEOs at Marks & Spencer, and SAP, and previously for AXA, Barrick Gold, Shell, and Nike. He is also a director of, the International Integrated Reporting Council, and We Mean Business, and serves as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption System Initiative. Prior to joining BSR, Aron practiced law in San Francisco and worked as a journalist at ABC News in New York. He holds a B.A. from Tufts University and a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
At BSR, your title is the President and CEO, please describe your responsibilities. Since BSR is a nonprofit, what does it mean to be the CEO?
My job is to help steer the organization and ensuring that our strategy is the right one, making sure that we have a good culture and that people are thriving, that our voice is heard externally, and that our financial performance is strong.
While those are the things I focus on, I also engage in project work sometimes. It is important for me to be involved in the work that we are doing and understand it the way my colleagues understand it.
BSR is a very entrepreneurial organization, even though we are a non-profit. We have a social mission. We’re here to make an impact and that has a lot of influence on how we do our work, with the kinds of people who join the organization, with the projects that we choose to take on or not take on. We have to stay on mission.
BSR operates in this niche where it is both a business consulting organization but also a social responsibility advocate. Could you speak to the benefits that BSR has in this niche?
That blend is one of our real strengths. We’re here to achieve an outcome. We have a mission to achieve a more just and sustainable world. That drives what we do, and it’s highly motivating. I think it helps us occupy a powerful place in the ecosystem in which we work. At the same time, we know how business operates. We don’t just like to make aspirational statements. I like to think of us as practical visionaries. Yes, we have a vision of where we want to head, where we want businesses to head, where we want the world to head, but we’re practical about it.
Compared to organizations that are more grassroots or organizations that deal with government on social issues, what advantages does dealing with businesses have? Who does more to make progress on the issues?
I don’t think it’s about who does more. I think it’s about different. In my view, all of the diverse organizations working on sustainability are very important. If BSR were the only organization working on sustainability, or if our type of organization was the only type of organization, we could never achieve our mission. It’s essential that there are grassroots organizations, international NGOs, academic researchers and think tanks, trade unions, governments, and all of us as citizens, all focus on these issues. There have been many times when a company might start to think about an issue because there is a campaign being led against it by an organization like Greenpeace. We don’t do that, but we’re then there to help the companies translate those ideas into action.
I would say similarly, that if the world only had organizations like Greenpeace, you would have campaigns, but you wouldn’t have needed follow-up. I like to think of this as an ecosystem and BSR has a place in the ecosystem. I think that it’s very important. But the rest of the ecosystem is also very important.
Some people that work at human rights organizations do not deal with businesses, and often advocate against them. To those people, what would you say to convince them that BSR’s mission should be valued and that businesses should be engaged with, not ignored or set as the adversary?
If we want to have decisive action on climate change, if we want to protect and secure human rights, if we want to make sure people are treated fairly, then we need businesses to play a role. Business-as-usual is not enough to get the job done. We are not here to defend business. I think that organizations that are just there to defend business are problematic. Businesses need to change and evolve. There are many examples, unfortunately, of companies not doing things the right way. But it would be foolish to dismiss what the business community is capable of accomplishing when it is focused on sustainability, on responsibility. Businesses make investments; we need those investments to be made in a way that is supportive of community development and the environment, not in a way that interferes with people’s rights. Businesses create products and services; we need those products and services to be focused on the things that people really need so that people can have their basic needs met. A lot of the traditional things that every business does can create economic and social value and protect the environment. We are here to make sure that those things are aligned with environmental and social value, with economic fairness, with good governance, and with transparency.
Again, it is not a binary choice. It is important that there are human rights organizations that seek accountability in the business sector. But that is only part of the picture. We need organizations to help business, challenge business, support business in having positive impacts on the wider world
Many of BSR’s blogs talk about the “business case for human rights”. What is the business case for sustainability, and what will happen when one day there is no more “business case” for sustainability?
Sometimes there isn’t a business case. Sometimes there is just right and wrong. And so it’s important we promote the business case, but sometimes there is just a right way to do things. And it might cost a compan money. Not everything is a win-win solution and people who work on sustainable business need to acknowledge that, be explicit about it, and not run away from it. There’s just a right way to treat people, and that remains an important part of what we do.
That said, there are a lot of business reasons as to why attention to sustainability is really important. And the reasons are growing and becoming more powerful. Starting with climate change: if we collectively, including the business community, don’t come up with effective solutions to climate change, our economies are going be hurt. There will be business disruption, there will be financial loss, there will be uncertainty. If we don’t manage climate well, the business climate will be significantly diminished, if not undermined. That’s a very strong business case for getting climate change right.
If you don’t treat your workers fairly, you won’t have motivated workers. There is a raft of surveys to prove this to be the case. Look at the companies that have had a problem in the MeToo era. Women don’t want to work at a company where the chief executive is mistreating women. In a thousand ways, for a thousand reasons, there are very good business cases for paying attention to diversity, fairness, and equity and inclusion.
Given those cases, such as mistreatment of workers leading to lower productivity, why have businesses mistreated their workers in the first place? How have businesses gotten away with bad behavior even though good behavior leads to better business outcomes?
I agree with the quote Barack Obama always used: “The arc of history is long and it bends towards justice”. What’s implicit in that statement is that we don’t have it right yet. Things are improving, but we have a long ways to go.
People aren’t perfect. We make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes it’s with the best intentions, and sometimes it’s not. But we’re human, and we’re fallible. Second, investors are paying more attention to ESG issues, but the pressures to deliver short-term profits is really intense and has a big role to play in this. Consumers say that they are interested in responsible business, but I am a bit skeptical. Many of us as consumers do, but we don’t all the time. And many consumers don’t care. Policymakers also enable companies to get away with things.
During your tenure as President and CEO, what have some of your greatest accomplishments been?
The one that I will remember until my last day on Earth is the day the Paris Agreement was signed. Our team at BSR, including me but certainly not only me by a longshot, we were very actively engaged at COP 21 (Conference of Parties), in the run up to COP 21, generating business support for a strong agreement in Paris. That was one day where you could say that this had the potential to change the world. Those days don’t come very often, but that was one that I will always, always remember.
The other kinds of things I’m proudest of, there’s a couple of things. One is internally focused; one is externally focused. When I became head at BSR, all but 3 of us were in San Francisco. We have become a truly global organization over the last 14-15 years. We have 8 offices, 30 languages spoken at BSR. Externally, we have had a lot of firsts. We were the first to do human rights training in China. We were the first to work with NGOs going into factories to review labor conditions. We did the first, if not one of the first, major global stakeholder gathers. BSR produced the first website dedicated to corporate responsibility.
To close: What would you say to people like me and other students who are in the later years in college, who are conscious about human rights, who are passionate about the world, moving forward? What are some words of advice or lessons that you have picked up along the way that you think are critical in us going forward with our careers?
I think what people need to thrive in today’s world, and this goes well beyond BSR, is the ability to a lot of different things and understand a lot of different perspectives. The notion that someone is going to go into a career and stay there for decades – that world doesn’t exist anymore. I am an anomaly being at BSR as long as I have, but you’ll want and need to do new things, develop new skills, understand new perspectives. The most powerful way someone can demonstrate that they’ll succeed at BSR is if they show that can see laterally, think laterally across lots of different ways of thinking, different sectors of society, different geographies, different cultures. That diversity of skills is key.
*Interview edited for brevity and clarity