December 30, 2003
The Evolution of Business for Social Responsibility: A Talk with BSR CEO Robert Dunn
by William Baue
In a SocialFunds interview, Business for Social Responsibility CEO Robert Dunn discusses how BSR
has evolved while CSR has matured over the past decade.
SocialFunds.com recently spoke with Robert Dunn, CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a global, non-profit organization that
promotes corporate social responsibility (CSR). BSR member companies employ more than six million
workers worldwide and generate combined annual revenues of nearly $2 trillion. The organization
provides these companies with information, tools, education and training, networking, advisory
services and opportunities for cross-sector collaboration about the full range of corporate
Before joining BSR, Mr. Dunn served for more than a decade
as vice president for corporate affairs at Levi Strauss, where he helped develop and implement the
company’s groundbreaking Global Sourcing and
Operating Guidelines. He spent the previous decade in the public sector working as a senior
staffer in the Carter White House, as a diplomat at the US Embassy in Mexico, and as chief of staff
and a cabinet member for the governor of Wisconsin. Prior to that, he worked in academia as a dean
and faculty member at Wesleyan University.
SocialFunds.com: How is BSR a different
organization now compared to when it was founded in 1992?
Robert Dunn: For the first two
years of its existence, BSR was Washington, DC-based, and sought to influence public policy. The
board of directors then adjusted the vision of the organization to focus instead on serving as a
resource to help companies implement more responsible practices. In 1994, we moved our
headquarters to San Francisco, retaining the Washington office until we completed the transition.
At the outset, we attempted to work with companies of all sizes in every sector about all
issues of corporate social responsibility everywhere in the world. Over time, we’ve learned
that’s not possible, and we’ve sharpened our focus on boards of directors, executive
leaders, and senior management of global leadership companies and their major suppliers in sectors
we think are most influential and most susceptible to engaging in change. We concentrate on a
select number of issues: accountability and transparency; human rights and social inclusion; and
the environment and global development.
We’ve also invested in advancing global
SF: By standards do you mean things like the Global Reporting Initiative and
similar guidelines, or are you talking about BSR’s own set of standards?
RD: We very
deliberately do not endorse any particular standard or guideline because we present ourselves to
companies as a well-informed and objective source of advice.
SF: The concept of corporate
social responsibility is criticized from both directions: from the left, it is characterized as PR
or corporate spin, and from the right, as loosey goosey and irrelevant to the bottom line. What
are your responses to these dueling perspectives?
RD: I always like to pose the question
to any critic whether they would prefer to advocate corporate irresponsibility. Those who
criticize CSR because it’s misappropriated by some companies and used in marketing or public
relations initiatives ought to have the capacity to distinguish between such window-dressing and
authentic commitment to corporate responsibility.
And those who believe that corporate
responsibility has no place in a successful enterprise need to acquaint themselves with the
substantial body of evidence that demonstrates both the favorable contribution that responsible
practices make to earnings, sales, return-on-investment and all of the financial measures, as well
as the way they support an effective risk management effort.
There’s a robust
business case for CSR that’s supported by academic and corporate studies. I don’t know
of any other corporate arena that requires investments, whether it’s research and development
or marketing or technology, where there’s definitive, unassailable evidence people can cite
in making day-to-day decisions about the wise use of company assets.
SF: Because it is a
member organization made up of corporations, BSR could be seen as over-representing corporate
interests and not working toward true sustainability. What is your response to this critique?
RD: A criticism that we’re a business membership organization would be similar to a
criticism of a civic organization that it only works with citizens.
I think everyone
agrees that we want to transform the culture of the private sector, and the question then becomes,
how do we make that happen? Clearly, there are some people who need to raise their voices, who
need to raise picket signs, who need to raise hell. There are other people who need to raise the
capacity of business to respond to these requests, and that’s the role we’ve sought to
play and feel is every bit as much of a constructive contribution to effecting change.