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Human rights trump climate change as sustainability concern

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Concern about water availability and quality has also risen appreciably over past two years, a new poll suggests.

SAN FRANCISCO - Could people possibly care more about other people than about pollution? Human rights surpassed climate change as the top priority among companies concerned about corporate sustainability and businesses, according to new research released this week by consulting and research firm BSR. The significance of water conservation and management issues also jumped dramatically from 2010 to 2011, the research reveals.

The data, part of the BSR/GlobalScan State of Sustainable Business Poll 2011, shows that there has been a gradual increase in the influence of human rights concerns as a business social responsibility priority since 2009. Currently, 65 percent of poll respondents cite this as a priority, compared with 59 percent in 2010. The number of BSR poll respondents who selected climate change remain unchanged at 63 percent for both 2011 and 2010.

Executives for BSR and research firm GlobeScan, which fielded the research, said the data reflects almost 500 responses from approximately 300 unique companies.

There was a noticeable jump in the number of respondents selecting water availability/quality issues as a significant priority. During 2011, 54 percent listed this as a key priority, up from 47 percent in 2010.

During a briefing about the poll results during the BSR Conference 2011 here, BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer said the research shows that despite the stagnant economic recovery, businesses remain focused and committed to their corporate social responsibility programs.

However, the data also shows that these ideals still sit somewhat outside the full attention of senior management and still need to be more tightly integrated into core operations. Approximately two-thirds of the poll respondents said that integration of sustainability into core business operations is their most important leadership challenge over the next 12 months.

When I spoke with Cramer before the BSR conference this week, here's how he put it: "When resources are at a premium, efficiency matters most." He also noted: "Our whole economy is based on more, more, more. We think the economy should be based on better, better, better."

Increasingly, businesses are being called upon to provide leadership roles on social and sustainability matters, Cramer said. This is not only because public trust in corporate "agendas" has been fading and they need to reverse that perception-- as evidenced vividly by the Occupy Wall Street -- movement, but also because the policymakers in many cases aren't responding quickly enough.

"Businesses' role in society are going to be undermined if they aren't taking sustainability and corporate responsibility seriously. ... Businesses look around and say, 'National governments aren't going to solve this, we've got to get on with it," he said.

Other posts from BSR Conference 2011:

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure