G&A Institute’s Report on Sustainable Brands 2016 — Theme: Finding new ways to activate purpose

Posted on June 14, 2016 by Selene Lawrence

By Selene Lawrence, Sustainability Reports Analyst, Governance & Accountability Institute

This past week, the national and international community of sustainability practitioners and enthusiasts convened for the 10th annual Sustainable Brands (SB) conference in San Diego. What took place among palm trees and beaches was not like any conference we normally attend to network, learn, and occasionally workshop. SB is a living breathing hub for activation– the activation of purpose, as was this year’s theme, but also the activation of inspiration, potential, and of the power of community.

This year’s theme of “activating purpose” resonated in every panel, from purposeful branding and partnerships, to finding purpose in one’s industry and the players within. There was the evolving purpose of incentive and risk, and certification and international frameworks. We also learned about the purpose of SB in San Diego, where we explored the most fitting place for a meeting on sustainable innovation and practice.

A resounding theme was the transformation from viewing sustainability practice as a risk mitigation tactic, to instead as opportunity for growth. In posing the questions, “What if sustainability acted as brand value creation?” and “What if consumers could be heroes of the future and not just commodities to extract profit?” we found that purpose and profit are more often linked than separate.

Novozymes, a leader in the biotech industry, proved that aligning business with the UN Sustainable Development Goals is not only preventative, but opportune, as it pushes businesses to look towards sustainable alternatives in their innovation pipeline that will provide competitive edge in the globalized landscape of realized SDG goals in the coming decade. Related to this was the topic of investor expectations. Through examples, we learned that we are far from the days when investors did not find sustainability relevant or worthwhile as a business strategy.

Today, 75% of investors believe that sustainability is material to investment decisions, and 60% stated they would divest from poor sustainability performers. Yet only 24% of IR professional believe it is important to their investors. It is a disconnect and misconception that poses a new risk, and also a new opportunity for companies.

To the point of bringing awareness to the IR professional, unlocking the power of sustainability as a growth agent in your company means unlocking it from the CSR department. A common thread among panelists from 3M to Walmart was allowing sustainability to permeate all departments from Investor Relations, to Marketing and employees on the floor.

At 3M, sustainability is now a part of every employee’s performance appraisal. Coca-Cola shared that only 20% of marketers that are aware of sustainability (which is an additional lower number in itself) actually use it in their strategy. Speaking in their language is crucial. To reach IR it may require switching your pitch to an Excel language (detail, data, predictability) rather than your big-picture Powerpoint vision.  For Coca-Cola marketers, it required filtering sustainability priorities to key campaigns that tied in directly to the brand’s original mission and purpose. But of course, purpose has to be established first.

The best advice at SB? Businesses and organizations should look to their mission to find purpose. How your sustainability initiatives or products resonate with consumers and the public depends on its authenticity, which means its direct connection to your purpose as a brand. Aria Finger, CEO of dosomething.org gave us the run-down on the millenial consumer, advising that they value transparancy and honesty, not perfection, the most. Therefore, sticking to an issue that is core to your brand, not just a hot-topic, is crucial. She also shared that failure in the pursuit of an honest product or campaign is more commendable (and may even be profitable if manipulated in the right way) than perfection in something that has little connection to purpose and mission.

Prioritizing what you want to tackle, (i.e water, poverty) not only requires a materiality analysis looking at stakeholder importance and business reputation, but also requires prioritizing what to exclude, what to  practice internally, what to carry over externally, and what to fight for.

One of the most interesting insights of SB  was the presence of the city it took place in. During the event there was a learning process about the City of San Diego, which is not often mentioned as a champion of sustainability, but is currently making some of the most aggressive and admirable commitments to a sustainable future.

We learned about the legally binding climate plan that will transform the city to 100% renewable energy by 2035, in addition to strong zero waste and sustainable transit initiatives. In an effective example of partnership we witnessed the city’s utility, public agency infrastructures like the San Diego Airport, and the city itself aligning under the common goal for a more healthy, livable, and ultimately sustainable city for it’s residents. Expect to add San Diego to your list of cities like Aspen and Copenhagen in the coming years.

On the last day, we were asked for 30 seconds of silence to think about the most important takeaways we would bring with us when we returned back to our respective homes, offices, and life-missions. I sat and thought of every open, smiling person I had connected with, from marketing managers and biomass engineers to consultants and advisors (like me) and realized how there wasn’t a single conversation in which there was  lack of common ground. We all were able to speak in one way or another around our shared culture, which…sure, is of sustainability, but also is of awareness and a common consciousness about our responsibility to the planet. And if we could make that common culture accessible to the rest of the world,  that was the real take-away.