BSR 17 – “Business is Central” in Achieving Global Sustainability

The penultimate week of October saw a major gathering of some of the brightest and most influential minds in business, government and the non-profit sector. The occasion? The 25th annual BSR Conference (BSR17), which seeks to unite the private sector in finding solutions to our most pressing global challenges.

This year, the organizers set out the question of ‘How Business Leads’ as the main theme of the three day conference and in his introductory speech BSR’s President and CEO, Aron Cramer, was quick to explain why. After acknowledging that 2017 had been a challenging year, which saw a rise in political volatility and triggered the exit of some countries from the commitments they had made in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, he praised the quick responses that came from large segments of the population as well as the private and public sectors. Pointing out that “business is central” in realizing the roadmap to a sustainable future, he said: “2017 has also been a year when business has stood up [and] a lot of CEOs, this year, have spoken out at a time when that has been so badly needed”. The large amount of attendees, including a number of big names, gave weight to Cramer’s words. Around 700 visitors from all areas of business were present to listen to the panels and network on sustainability related collaboration opportunities, while US Vice President Al Gore, Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards and Microsoft’s President Brad Smith were just a few of the big names on the speakers list. What made their presence especially valuable however, were the insights they contributed.

The data presented by Al Gore indicated that the rate of increase of greenhouse gas emissions is not only slowing, but also leveling off. A sign that the effort against global warming is making a difference. Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley’s CMO and CSO, who was once Gore’s policy advisor in the White House, offered a look at the research her organization has been conducting over the past years. The findings of which include data that gender diverse workplaces do in fact have a higher return on equity and that businesses with long term strategies have performed better in the past 25 years than those oriented on achieving short term gains. Finally, she offered a broad look on sustainability and Morgan Stanley’s research, which indicated investment opportunities related to sustainability are likely to create a global market worth $10Tn annually. Thus enlarging the world’s overall GDP by 4.5%.

Brad Smith, the former lawyer and now Microsoft President, provided a particularly interesting, legalistically inspired view on digital security. He emphasized that ongoing clandestine hacking, conducted by governments and non-state actors alike, is enabled by the absence of international law on the use of new digital technologies and presented Microsoft’s answer, which is an attempt to bring the private and public sectors together and establish what he terms a “Digital Geneva Convention”. Such an agreement would lay down the rules for what is and is not allowed in the sphere of cyberspace. The initiative further envisions the creation of a pledge between technology companies to only make defensive minded software as well as an independent organization that can investigate and share publicly the evidence that attributes nation-state attacks to specific countries.

A proud sponsor of the event, Djembe sent its own representative to the conference and, as an Africa focused consultancy, was especially eager to hear about and contribute to the sustainability efforts related to the African continent. While the sessions dealt with global problems and, as such were all relevant to Africa, a few stood out. The panel on “Positive Agriculture” offered valuable insights into how major players in the global food and livestock markets are optimizing the use of fertilizers and striving to increase knowledge exchange among farmers. Especially in relation to water retention in soil. The session on “Harnessing New Technologies for Supply Chain Sustainability” discussed an increasing trend towards more impact-focused programs that review their global supply chains to be transparent with the local community and various stakeholders. Notably, it highlighted that such programs create value and are therefore profitable to both corporations and local communities.

BSR has been one of the leaders in the promotion of business collaboration in all areas of sustainability already before CSR was widely adopted. Apart from the hundreds of projects across the world that it has incubated, its influence is also apparent by the large number of former BSR employees occupying C-level sustainability positions in businesses such as Amazon and Levi Strauss. This year’s conference confirmed that it remains a central platform for idea exchange as well as collaboration and, as such, Djembe will seek to remain a proud sponsor of its future events.

For videos, blogs and photographs from the conference, see BSR’s highlights blog, which provides links to everything you may have missed:

By Thomas McEnchroe, Djembe Communications