2012: Here’s Wishing for a Year of Practical Solutions

This is going to be a difficult year on a number of fronts for the corporate social responsibility field. The presidential election campaign season will undoubtedly have various squalls and arguments that will have some kind of CSR dimension. The Eurocrisis could have a number of ripple effects. The doldrums of the economy will continue to dampen spirits.  Pollsters say that the American people feel “stuck,” “frustrated,” and “pessimistic.”

If you are a contrarian, this is precisely the time you would start getting into the stock market. For CSR professionals responsible for community relations or improving the external environment for their business, these might be considered challenging times.

However, a growing number of companies are changing their outlooks in positive directions. You know the saying: “one person’s problem is another person’s opportunity?” We are starting to see companies take an active interest in tackling complex and difficult challenges. In fact, IBM, for example, says that tackling complex and difficult challenges is a core foundation for their business strategy. Companies like Cisco, ITT, Flowserv, and Chesapeake Energy are pushing into complex situations with new technologies that enable them to deliver products and services better, cleaner, and safer than was thought possible a generation ago.

They are just doing what they do step by step, and step by step they are making a difference. It reminds me of the old question: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

That being said, they are tackling concrete and specific challenges. The world may not be making a dent in terms of reducing the hole in the global ozone layer, but individual businesses like FedEx and UPS are reducing the emissions of their truck and air fleets. Companies like Wal-Mart and the Gap are not changing social mores throughout the developing world, but they are creating local change through the guidance and requirements they have for participants in their supply chains.

There aren’t many companies that have the resources to take on all of the health and wellness challenges out there, but some, like Subway, are changing their menus to include more healthy food choices. Enough companies are generating jobs in Detroit that the housing market has stabilized there for the first time in a while. Bridge2Rwanda may not lift Africa out of poverty, but it is helping American companies explore supply chain and agro-business opportunities there.

In all of these cases, no one is making grandiose claims. They are just doing what they do step by step, and step by step they are making a difference. It reminds me of the old question: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

There is a huge streak in human nature that wishes we could solve all of our problems with the wave of a wand, the throw of a dice, or the purchase of a lottery ticket. But while a grand reversal sometimes happens, the odds are against it. Most of the time, progress happens incrementally, through trial and error, discipline and hard work, and yes, by picking up the pieces after failure.

Most of the time, progress happens incrementally, through trial and error, discipline and hard work, and yes, by picking up the pieces after failure.

For these reasons, you are going to see a few changes in BCLC’s focus.

Editorially, we are going to do a series of industry profiles including finance and insurance, energy, engineering, information technology, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, agriculture, consumer products, and apparel and textiles. We are going to describe the environmental, health, and safety practices of energy companies. We are going to look at engineering, construction and smart grid technology solutions to address water challenges. We are going to work with public and private sector partners on disaster recovery and community development long-term investments. We are going to investigate how health and wellness and education challenges affect business and what they are doing about them.  We are going to look at how apparel and textile companies are able to produce $19 t-shirts from half-way around the world, and what this means for the standard of living of people in places such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. We are going to be like The National Geographic of business exploring the exotic business eco-systems that make a difference and understanding how they do what they do.

These stories may not be huge news stories or extremely controversial, but step by step, they may well contribute to getting us to a better place than we have been, and we desperately need to aid and abet the positive solutions that we can find.

Our events are going to change as well. We are not going to do a lot of “show and tell” events this year. Rather, we are going to focus on specific challenges and encourage participants to put forward ideas. Mississippi River basin flood management? Childhood nutrition programs? Sustainable community design in Carolina and Virginia? Entrepreneurship in inner cities? We are going to ask people to check their assumptions at the door and have an open mind about working together.

Our research and analysis tools are also going to be configured to promote dialogue, information-sharing, and problem solving. There are plenty of areas where businesses are making positive contributions, but could do more or do better – we want to fan the flames and enable companies to succeed and make a difference.

For all of the drama addicts out there, there’s going to be plenty of name-calling and gnashing of teeth, and kicking and gouging. For the rest of us, it would be great to see if we could make a deal to define some concrete problems and make some progress toward solving them together. It would be great if 2012 were to turn out to be a year of practical solutions.