Notes from “Reset World” Conference

November 2, 2009

On October 20-23, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) convened an extensive group of professionals from multinational corporations, consultancies, NGOs, and governments at its annual conference, titled “Reset Economy. Reset World.”

While discussions among the 1,000 participants – in both formal sessions and during networking – volleyed among aspirations for the future, case studies from the present, and criticisms of some existing practices and perceptions, one particularly thought-provoking conversation took place on Wednesday morning.

Ernst Ligteringen, CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative (and a past BCLC speaker), and Ricardo Young, Chairman of Ethos Institute, joined BSR President Aron Cramer in a forecast of sustainability issues in a “reset world.”

To summarize Young: The global economic crisis was a blessing, causing companies to rethink and reset their course. Going forward, transparency is needed and bold companies must lead.

And in summary of Ligteringen:  It is no longer “business as usual.” To lead in their industries, companies should take a systematic approach to seeking unusual partners and to creating dialogue between business and stakeholders.

One question to the panelists from moderator Cramer caught my ear: With so much attention on climate change, what issues are we not thinking about? The panelists suggested poverty reduction/bottom of the pyramid (BOP) issues, as well as ecological deficit, prior to delving into the question of whether today’s “incumbent” companies are the right ones to address them.

However, I’d like to add to the list of issues we need to pay attention to, as we, as a global community, continue to take measures to reduce our impact on the environment.

At BCLC we know the challenge for public-private partnerships is to work across sector lines and within areas of mutual benefit to advance sustainability on three intertwined fronts – economic strength, social progress, and environmental stewardship. Here are my additions to the list:

Anti-corruption/rule of law – Chamber-affiliate CIPE (Center for International Private Enterprise), AccountAbility, Trace International, Transparency International, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation are among the leading organizations working with companies and countries to advance governance and eliminate corruption.

Economic empowerment and entrepreneurial development – Certainly closely related to BOP issues, the empowerment of women, informal sector workers, and young entrepreneurs deserves comment. IBM, KPMG, and Microsoft, among others, have taken bold approaches to developing the spirit of entrepreneurism and the ability to make a living in communities across the world. 

Education – A plethora of companies are working on education and teacher quality, as well as skills training, including Chevron, Discovery, Proctor & Gamble, and Siemens Corporation. Without skilled employees to fill the jobs required to innovate, companies face a talent deficit that could lead to their demise.

Emergency resiliency – In an era of frequent natural disasters, food and water shortages, pandemics, and the threat of terrorism, communities need the ability to mitigate severe consequences, respond efficiently, and swiftly get back to business as usual. The Dow Chemical Company, Office Depot Foundation, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, and the U.S. State Department are examples of leading organizations involved in community resiliency efforts.  

Preventable disease –The economic impact of preventable diseases such as AIDS and TB are well known to companies operating in some developing communities. Abbott, Daimler, Eli Lilly and Company, and GlaxoSmithKline are among the many companies working to bolster community and economic development through disease management and so too is the Gates Foundation.

BSR’s website has a good collection of video highlights and session notes.

Just like BCLC’s recent Global Corporate Citizenship Conference, the conversations at the BSR conference showed that companies, with their NGO and government partners, are grappling with tough issues, struggling to set the right priorities that will put them on a successful course in the “reset” world, and seeking out ways to “do well and do good.”