As businesses implement digital transformations, their ability to measure and manage their environmental, social and economic impacts improve. Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR, told Compass how digital agility contributes to business sustainability.
The historic events of 2020 have demonstrated the essential importance of sustainable business. This new awareness comes also with a strong sense that environmental, social and economic considerations can no longer be treated as separate, as they have been for decades: they are inextricably linked.
Environmental protections and decisive action on climate change are needed to ensure that peoples’ livelihoods and national economies can thrive. Climate action will be most effective when it is viewed as a driver of innovation and employment. And business requires certainty and predictably that can only come if environmental issues are handled effectively, social cohesion is present and systemic discrimination is relegated to the past. The recognition of these interconnections is reflected in the European Green Deal and other efforts to “build back better” from the pandemic.
Because of these interdependencies, pitting one of these concepts against the others is counterproductive. What we need instead is a political and social environment in which each pillar supports and nurtures the others. At BSR, we work to encourage this mutually beneficial climate.
Quantifying common purpose
Data – and the agility they can enable in understanding and reacting to fast-changing conditions – is one important element in recognizing and achieving mutual benefit.
The more information we have, and the more we all can agree on and trust what it means, the better equipped we are to identify emerging challenges early, evaluate possible solutions, test our hypotheses and act with dexterity and confidence.
We live in a data-rich age; data are everywhere, and our digitally enabled systems generate more each day. On the environmental front, these data have generated significant progress. We now have science-based targets on climate, and we are making progress toward science-based targets on water, oceans and plastics. Data improve environmental visibility, supporting better decisions and improving performance against our goals.
On the people front, the challenge is more difficult. Data on hiring, diversity, equity and inclusion are plentiful, informative and helpful. We can measure where we are and where we want to go. But how do we measure the quality of relationships, which we know have a profound effect on progress?
“Designed and applied wisely, data can enable us to see the essential connections that will enable social, economic and environmental progress.”
We know how much companies are spending on community investment, but how much is that investment achieving? Will putting more emphasis on measurement improve our abilities, or distract us from the progress that can be made with qualitative measures?
As artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a powerful force, many see the immense benefits of being able to analyze and understand our data tsunami in time to act on it. AI is unquestionably quick; it can analyze data as fast as we can generate it. But is it unbiased? On this, the jury is out. We know, for example, that automated systems used in hiring – which were supposed to be objective – do, in fact, disadvantage women job applicants. The coders, most of them men and, we hope, with no consciousness or intent, built their male-oriented biases into the tools.
The first step to beating our biases, however, is to recognize them. Which is why one of the fastest-expanding projects at BSR is advising developers as they work to build human rights and privacy in – and bias out – of their AI systems.
Insights at speed
The issues we should be measuring continue to proliferate. New technologies and business models are reshaping the nature of work. Our energy and transportation models are undergoing transformative change. There is greater recognition of – and appreciation for – the growing diversity of our communities and our workplaces. The world is more transparent, which makes clearer than ever before the inequities in our societies.
What’s more, especially in 2020, citizens and work colleagues are making clear their desire to see rapid social and environmental progress. Every institution and business leader should pay very close attention to these changing expectations.
Data can be – indeed, already are – an invaluable means of making progress on the urgent challenges of our time. Designed and applied wisely, data can enable us to see the essential connections that will enable social, economic and environmental progress. It is up to us to develop tools that make good on that promise.
PROFILE: Aron Cramer joined BSR (formerly known as Business for Social Responsibility) in 1995. He has served as President and CEO since 2004, advising senior executives at the organization’s more than 250 member companies on the full spectrum of social and environmental issues. He is co-author of the book Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World, which spotlights innovative sustainability strategies that enable business success. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.