Session

BSR in the Hot Seat: Ask Me Anything (AMA)

Social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and web Q&As like Reddit’s infamous AMA sessions (“Ask Me Anything”) have broken down the barriers between the public and business executives, politicians, and celebrities. In keeping with the Transparency theme of the BSR Conference 2014, we’ll put members of BSR’s executive team in the hot seat, where they will field open questions from the audience and Twitter about anything and everything, with a focus on topics related to BSR’s work (no, we won’t break any non-disclosure agreements!) and challenges in the sustainable business field. Watch live, or follow at #BSRhotseat.

Speakers

Highlights

  • One of the things that BSR has done exceptionally well is start with an idea, incubate it at one or two companies, replicate it through its member network, and bring it to scale globally, such as with HERproject.

  • BSR has reinvented itself a few times throughout its history, and innovation and experimentation is necessary to grow. Member companies can come to BSR even at the idea stage, and BSR can work with the company to co-create.

  • Now that social responsibility is part of most major companies’ business practices, the challenge that lies ahead is how do we move from best practices to integration to achieving systemic changes? The answer lies in helping companies understand how they can specifically and uniquely provide value to their communities and the environment. The best companies have come to understand that there are limits to what they can accomplish on their own; collaboration is the key to transformation.

Memorable Quotes

“It’s not about doing less harm only, it’s about how to leverage the power of business to make greater good.” —Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen, BSR

“We can drive real impact by thinking about the employer as a place that can offer you [the worker] income, connections, knowledge, and room to grow.” —Jeremy Prepscius, BSR

“Clients come to us because we have credibility, and we will tell them their core issues, not just what they want to hear. We have a membership model. When we have a project with you, we don’t disappear after we deliver the results. You have a longer-term relationship. We don’t want to deliver a report that sits on a shelf; we want to help you implement it.” —Laura Gitman, BSR

Overview

Makower started the session by noting that this is the first time that BSR has had an “Ask Me Anything” session, and it fits with this year’s Conference theme of transparency. The speakers represented four of the six members of BSR’s leadership team, who were open to answering questions from the audience and Twitter users.

Makower asked the panelists to provide some insights on their work and what they think defines social responsibility. Prepscius said that he’s been with BSR for the last eight years developing its operations in Asia. In this varied region, the most important steps to achieving social responsibility are governance and rule of law. Pruzan-Jorgensen joined BSR six years ago and is in charge of operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. When he first started, social responsibility meant minimizing the negative impacts that businesses have on their environment and communities. Now, it’s about how to maximize the positive impacts businesses have on their communities.

Gitman started at BSR nine years ago, has helped establish BSR’s New York City office, and is in charge of member services. She echoed that social responsibility has changed: Companies are now focusing on how they can specifically and uniquely provide value. She noted that European companies are now learning from the best practices of U.S. companies. Cramer said most big companies have accepted a lot of the core principles of social responsibility. The challenge that lies ahead is moving from best practices to integration to achieving systemic changes. The best companies have come to understand that there are limits to what they can accomplish on their own.

Makower asked the group to share BSR’s best-kept secret. Gitman said that BSR’s employees work hard and are passionate about their work. Additionally, BSR has succeeded in putting together collaborative initiatives that create big impact. Pruzan-Jorgensen and Prepscius said that BSR does significant fieldwork, in both farms and factories. In factories, BSR has been providing training to workers through HERproject and the Women in Factories project, which are women’s empowerment programs. BSR also helps businesses conduct impact assessments to understand what impacts businesses have had on their employees, communities, and environments.

For the question-and-answer session, Makower fielded questions from the live audience as well as through Twitter.

@JohnFriedman on Twitter asked whether the need for reporting prevents sustainability measures from being more fully adopted. Cramer said that companies will not necessarily get an immediate return with sustainability measures. Earlier that day at the Conference, Indra Nooyi, the Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, explained that she faced a lot of criticism from analysts when she focused on sustainability efforts, but she persisted and persevered. Gitman said that there’s an obsession with measurable impact, but that there are times when we need to move past that. She added that even if the impact isn’t measurable right now, it may be measurable 10 years from now. Prepscius added that important things may not be able to be measured, but they are still important.

Makower asked the group what one wish they would like to have granted in order to accelerate BSR’s work and mission. Pruzan-Jorgensen wished to eliminate corruption. Gitman said she wished for more, deeper dialogue between the boards of directors of companies and between directors and the public. Prepscius wished for a US$100 million innovation fund to conduct different experiments and have the freedom to fail.

Audience member Robert Bayer from 3BL Partners asked how BSR is organized. Cramer said that BSR is legally a nonprofit, but it’s actually a hybrid mission-driven organization that works with business. If BSR were incorporated today, it would perhaps be a B-Corp. Despite being a nonprofit, BSR often competes with for-profit consulting firms. Gitman says that BSR pushes clients differently and has a lot of credibility with them. Since BSR is a membership organization, it has a deep, long-term interest in seeing its members grow in a sustainable direction.

In another audience question, Richard Gillies from Kingfisher asked the speakers what one thing they wish member companies would do. Cramer said that member companies could engage with BSR at the inception of an idea and project. BSR can grow the project, replicate it, and bring it to scale globally, as they did with HERproject.

Makower ended the session by asking the panelists to imagine the “Ask Me Anything” panel at the 2017 conference, and what story they would like to be able to tell then. Gitman and Cramer both expressed their hope for achieving systematic change and significant transformative projects, especially with regard to climate change and making the economy more inclusive. Prepscius hoped to have established an innovation fund so that BSR can experiment and take risks. Along the same lines, Pruzan-Jorgensen said he would like to see more freedom to invest in things that have impact. For his part, Makower told the audience he would like to see its members become more engaged in climate, human rights, and other issues.

Date

November 4, 2014