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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. 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 responsibility issues.

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. 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 standards.

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.


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