There couldn’t have been a better way to end 2011 than the ambitious and cheerful Net Impact conference followed by Business for Social Responsibility‘s (BSR) annual conference.
Last year marked the inaugural year for my participation in both conferences. I came back encouraged, informed and enthused about the work ahead of us. [See: Can MBA Students be Taught Humility? and The Sustainability Jobs Debate] This year – perhaps because I have been deeply immersed in the CSR space – I feel a bit bereft, despite invigorating conversations and inspiring keynotes.
Don’t get me wrong.
While the Net Impact panels once again illustrated an incredibly knowledgeable student body set to graduate in coming years, BSR attendees and speakers showcased high aspirations and a deep understanding of the complexity of issues that face us today.
Throughout the seven days, I was continually questioned: Did you learn something new? What trends have you identified from all that you have heard? And each time I thought, what’s missing? Why am I not coming up with any articulate answers? Is my brain fried or is it something else?
On Friday, finally, sitting through a six-hour flight back to the east coast, it hit me. The CSR sector had grown up.
As a receiver of information, I was among familiarity, maturity. While last year the conferences motivated and inspired, this year the conversations focused on strategies, case studies, examples, successes and failures.
As Dave Stangis, VP of CSR for Campbell Soup articulated at a panel on Blue Sky Thinking during NI11, “CSR is no longer about identifying the business case. Today, we have evolved from questioning why to answering how.”
The Net Impact panels focused on nuts and bolts, dos and don’ts, a far cry from years past. The BSR roundtables featured honest evaluations, admittance of failure, collaborative statements of success and practical tips for newcomers.
Here then, are the top five trends I observed at two of the year’s most well-attended conferences on corporate social responsibility, innovation and sustainability:
1. We LOVE Shared Value:
Michael Porter’s “creating shared value” has appealed to the corporate sector like no other concept in recent years. Not corporate social responsibility or corporate sustainability, citizenship or conscious capitalism. There seems something so potent about shared value that CSR and sustainability executives cannot stop talking about it! A year ago, they would tell me “CSR is embedded in our DNA.” Now that statement has evolved to “Our culture has always been about creating shared value.”
Point is, CSV offers us nothing more radically new than the concept of CSR. It dictates the same concept of stakeholder engagement, mutual benefits, holistic bottom lines. But it has resonated by removing the morality that responsibility instantly dictates. For CSR and sustainability executives who have to make the business case to their C-suite, creating shared value provides them with their business case.
2. Familiarity breeds contempt
I found several attendees tell me how repetitive some of the sessions were, that they didn’t learn too much that was new or revolutionary. Perhaps it was because the same folks were attending the conferences every year? Earlier this year I wrote on Forbes’ CSR blog that instead of attending the conferences every year, we should send a colleague the following year so that we can actually widen the net of information and inspiration.
This continues to hold true: Chances are, every year there will be some common denominator at these conferences. With issues like energy conservation, water scarcity, poverty, community relations and employee engagement remaining the overarching topics, why not let one of the non-converted/uneducated learn next year?
Lesser chance of you suffering from conference fatigue.
3. Where are the CSOs?
In September, Ellen Weinreb, a prominent CSR and sustainability recruiter, released a report titled CSO Back Story*. Essentially, the report tracks every executive with the title of chief sustainability officer among the U.S.’s publicly traded companies. Her research points to 29 such individuals. While it omits the many hundreds of officers holding a wide breadth of titles ranging from CSR director to VP for sustainability and social responsibility, the report pinpointed several best practices and the continuing lack of standardization on how companies define, prioritize and implement corporate responsibility.
But I digress. [See what Corporate Secretary had to say about the report or download the complete report here.]*
Point is: Only two of the 29 CSOs Weinreb identified were in attendance at BSR: Coca-Cola’s Beatrice Perez and UPS’ Scott Wicker. Both were named CSO sometime this year. Where were the others? Wasn’t the conference meant for CSR and sustainability executives to come together for three days of knowledge sharing and benchmarking? What happened this year?
4. The Emotional Quotient
Both conferences featured wonderfully articulate keynote speakers, including KaBoom’s Darryl Hammond, Keen Mobility’ Vail Horton, Nike’s Hannah Jones, Al Gore, Strauss Group’s Ofra Strauss, Anheuser Busch’ Carlos Brito and Best Buy’s Brian Dunn.
While they discussed CSR and sustainability from their unique pedestal, the common denominator was the emotional connection they demonstrated with their cause, their brand, and their philosophy.
Hammond discussed how his childhood taught him the importance of play in a kid’s life. Strauss emphasized how her consumers and conflict-ridden Israel continues to teach her the right way of conducting business, of stakeholder engagement, of business being the real power in solving social problems.
Dunn on the other hand, focused on humility, responsible leadership and the importance of connecting with employees and consumers.
While last year’s speakers evinced more pragmatism, a businessman’s stoicism, this year the air held tension, an unspoken worry that things were going wrong too quickly, that we all needed to wake up. Quickly. The speakers were talking of soft – un-businesslike some would say – attributes: Social responsibility, connecting, respect, and the human condition, even destitution.
What had happened?
Let’s see: A recession that instead of leveling off, seems to be spreading across generations and countries for starters; a growing understanding that each of our actions – and inactions – impact many others in the world; a disastrous lack of trust for business; and a generational divide that seems to be holding the current decision makers accountable for their decades of excess.
Is business leadership finally waking up to their societal stakeholders?
5. Occupy Wall Street: Ignore or Engage?
Almost every keynote brought up this mass of undefined protestors that have continued to expand beyond American borders. Net Impact’s Executive Director Liz Maw opened the 2011 conference by asking attendees to “Occupy Wall Street but from within.”
Al Gore said, “Business must respond,” and that “it wasn’t a question any more.”
Ofra Strauss showed a three-minute video of the protestors equating them to civil unrest and a grassroots movement of discontent that business has to recognize and address.
At my BSR panel on hyper-transparency I brought up this commonality in one of my responses and posed a question for the audience: Will business ever think of these protestors as stakeholders? To my surprise, Jeff Mendelsohn from New Leaf Paper said that he and fellow attendees had, in fact, invited the Occupiers during a recent conference and that “The dialogue proved very productive for business and the protestors.”
Will anyone else follow?
*Full disclaimer: I worked with Weinreb on the report.