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Reflections from Business for Social Responsibility Conference

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Posted on November 23, 2010

The 2010 Business for Social Responsibility Conference attracted more than 1,000 professionals representing Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, consulting firms and the media.  During the four day gathering, at which organizations discuss their efforts to operate more sustainably, it was evident that this movement is more than a trend.  Thinking about the long-term impacts of operations is becoming a core part of business planning and management.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Innovate. Integrate. Inspire,” and true to name, innovation was a predominant theme throughout the conference sessions. Companies that put long-term resources into the innovation of socially-beneficial products and services can reap rewards; including finding ways to operate more sustainably and selling products and services that enable others to do so (think GE and their ecomagination campaign, which brought in $70 billion in revenue since its creation 5 years ago). There’s also a reputational benefit to be had.

Another theme that pervaded nearly all of the conference sessions was supply chain. Previously, corporate sustainability programs have focused on a company’s own operations – the impact of what they’re doing inside their walls on the communities in which they operate. This remains important, but it’s no longer enough.  A company is now accountable for what happens both up and down their supply chain. Walmart’s Supplier Sustainability Assessment has been a huge impetus for this.

While innovation and supply chain actually can be compelling for those of us sustainability geeks, admittedly one of the more enjoyable sessions that I found myself in was Greening Show Biz: From ’30 Rock’ to ‘It’s Complicated.’ Representatives from NBC Universal presented their efforts to push a high-consuming industry to operate more sustainably. In addition to telling fun behind-the-scenes stories, they spoke about finding the sustainability focus that made most sense for their business. As a mass communications company, they’ve identified their biggest potential is in communicating how their viewers can decrease their environmental impact. While part of me felt like this was copping out, it brings up a good point about the importance of tailoring a sustainability program to each individual business and putting the focus on what makes most sense for a company to mitigate risks and take advantage of opportunities.

Overall, it is evident that companies are becoming more sophisticated in their sustainability programs. Pressure from NGOs, potential regulation, resource constraints, customers and investors are pushing them to do so. At the same time, uncertainty persists on best practices, exact measurement protocols, reporting techniques and best governance structures.  As most every presenter at the BSR event articulated, this translates to opportunity for companies to pursue innovative solutions that are good for people, the planet, and their profit.

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