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.