Being Bold at BSR’s Annual Conference

I recently attended BSR’s annual conference in New York City. BSR is a global nonprofit organization that works with member companies and partners to build a just and sustainable world. The theme of the conference was “Be Bold.”

I’ve spent the bulk of my career working in manufacturing. I began working in sustainability for a global cement manufacturer and mining company when I was asked to develop and lead a U.S. CSR program. I’ve always had a passion for the environment and was thrilled to be a part of a company that considered the environmental and social impacts of its work. I was privileged to lead the stakeholder engagement efforts of the company in communities across the US.  During that time, I was living and breathing much of the content of the BSR conference. The plenaries were inspiring and interesting and the breakouts felt like coming home.

Let’s Get Radical

During one particularly interesting session, Sir John Browne, former CEO of BP, explained that companies need to be radically engaging with society. Not just by hosting a regular meeting, but by proactively collaborating with key stakeholders to eliminate the power dynamic and leverage their viewpoints to guide the strategic direction of a company. That approach is the path by which companies will be the most successful going forward.

By definition, a stakeholder is any person, social group, organization or society at-large that has a stake in the business or its activities. It can include ownership and property interests, legal interests and obligations, and moral rights. These stakeholder groups usually include the following: 

For additional insight, my SVCF colleague Liz Lipton-McCombie recently wrote a blog that includes tips on how corporations can engage with stakeholders, based on learnings from her recent Sustainatopia attendance.

Clear is the New Black

One stakeholder group that corporations tend to be particularly interested in hearing from is their investor group, and with good reason. One plenary session, led by Erika Karp, founder and CEO of Cornerstone Capital Group, focused on how investors are increasingly asking for sustainable development information, requiring increased disclosure and transparency of non-financial data. This is a trend that will continue, especially as asset managers are increasingly women and millennials.      

When asked if sustainability reporting was becoming obsolete, panelists and session participants tried not to scoff. Panelists included heads of CSR at Nasdaq and Bloomberg, as well as the Executive Director of The WikiRate Project and SVCF partner Hewlett Packard Enterprise Stakeholder Relations Manager. All agreed that reporting on non-financial data is no longer optional and that the process by which a company produces such data is almost as valuable as the data itself.

A Social License to Operate

Sustainability reporting has seen massive growth in the last few years. In one breakout session, panelists addressed the challenges of engaging with stakeholders in an era of hyper-transparency. One panelist, Dominic Channer, VP of Community Relations for Kinross Gold Corporation, spoke of a gold mine in Romania that never opened. The Canadian mining company lost $1 billion in development costs because the mining company didn’t proactively engage with its stakeholders. The community felt ignored; they banded together, made the case on the adverse consequences of opening a new mine and won.

Thinking back on my own experience in mining and manufacturing I’m struck by how progressive mining and manufacturing is when it comes to stakeholder engagement. The mining industry has taken a much more radical and progressive approach than I’ve seen in technology companies. This could be because of stories like the Romanian mine, or simply a desire by companies to mitigate risk. Either way, a lot can be learned from this decades-old industry.

Ultimately, BSR served as a reminder that sustainability is about people and the impact we have on the world. As a CSR practitioner and environmental steward, I have hope that companies across the globe will use that power for good and not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same.

If you need help in identifying, engaging or growing your corporate stakeholder base, please email Silicon Valley Community Foundation at donate@siliconvalleycf.org.