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Brands Explore Ways to Drive Change, Engage Stakeholders in Round One of SB '13 Breakouts

Following a morning of engaging plenaries, Tuesday afternoon began the breakout portion of the SB ’13 conference, with twelve sessions exploring topics across six tracks: Communications; Strategy & Metrics; Employee Engagement & Organizational Change; Manufacturing & Supply Chain; Product & Service Innovation; and Consumer Insights & Behavior Change.

Following a morning of engaging plenaries, Tuesday afternoon began the breakout portion of the SB ’13 conference, with twelve sessions exploring topics across six tracks: Communications; Strategy & Metrics; Employee Engagement & Organizational Change; Manufacturing & Supply Chain; Product & Service Innovation; and Consumer Insights & Behavior Change.

The “Media and Sustainability Renaissance” breakout session presented by AHA! consisted of an impressive team of media influencers. Jo Confino, Executive Editor of The Guardian Sustainable Business Hub, moderated a panel that included Chip Giller, president and founder of Grist; Joel Babbit, CEO of Mother Nature Network; and Aman Singh, Editorial Director at CSRWire. The consensus on the panel was that media needs a revamp, as conventional media is no longer relevant; Singh and Confino both mentioned the lack of value of press releases. According to Giller, climate coverage decreased 42% from 2009 to 2012; he attributed this to the fact that sustainability is not breaking news and doesn’t happen overnight so conventional media isn’t attracted to the story. Babbit’s assessment was that there are two types of journalists, those who entertain and those who inform, and informers do not always get readers.

Media and the Sustainability Renaissance

Confino then asked: How much of all sustainability news is greenwash? Giller’s estimate was 80-85%. He mentioned that BMW i’s ActiveE cars, which are reinvented from the ground up, seem to be part of the exception to this. Confino asked if the media should be reflecting the news or driving change. Babbit’s point of view was that it is not appropriate to put individual views into journalism. While Babbit said that it would be great if media reporting drove change but directing people to change is not appropriate.

Decoding effective methods of driving consumer behavior change

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Freya Williams from Publicis Kaplan Thayer moderated “Know Thyself: The Role of Brands in Enabling Optimal Lifestyles.” Those in attendance at the session heard from Alison Murphy of Lululemon Athletica, Javier Rodriguez Merino from Coca-Cola, Evan Marks from the Ecology Center of Orange County, and John Havens of the H[app]athon Project. An overriding theme was that getting people to do things that are good for them is hard but that giving them tangible experiences — whether through community running groups at Lululemon, or getting kids involved in growing their own food at the Ecology Center — is a great way to encourage learning by doing. Another takeaway from the discussion was the need for brands to return to the “noble art of marketing” by creating products people actually need as opposed to made-up needs.

A major theme of the conference has been the enormous potential of the private sector to help bring about a sustainable economy. The other side of the coin is the role of government policy.

Mariana Grossman of Sustainable Silicon Valley, Jim Hanna of Starbucks and Bill Shireman of Future 500 formed a panel on "Aligning Corporate Policy Influence in Support of a Sustainable Economy." Moderator Andrew Winston of Winston Eco-Strategies asked, what influence can corporations have in bringing about green legislation? If there is any influence to be had, how can it be done?

Hanna said that words like “sustainability,” will fall on deaf ears on Capitol Hill. Anyone hoping to influence policy makers will have to learn to speak their language; talk about jobs and energy independence, not biodiversity loss. Trade unions are often a barrier. Winston noted that, as these groups’ approach to lobbying is to “stop bad things from happening,” they have generally been unable to see how progressive environmental legislation will be of benefit to their membership.

Despite robust volunteer efforts, as a team or individually in their respective communities, the strongest way for companies to improve overall employee engagement and satisfaction is to implement the ideas and innovations of sustainability into employees’ job descriptions. Status quo changer Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, presented correlating research that backed this message in a session on “Next Steps in Embedded Sustainability for Tomorrow’s Brand.” For example, companies that enable their employees to implement sustainable practices are more engaged and more profitable. Correspondingly, 72% of companies in the Dow Jones sustainability Index outperform the general market.

This line of thinking was affirmed by Liz Maw, CEO of Net Impact, who has worked with several top companies for further understanding of the sustainability space, agreed that employees want to focus on ideas and innovations they are passionate about. She asserted a strong need to eliminate internal barriers to make more of an impact, including creating understanding from the top down and bottom up.

Tuesday — Day 2
Wednesday — Day 3
Thursday — Day 4

James Barsimantov of EcoShift moderated “Supplier Innovation 2.0,” which included panelists Chad Davis from Target, Mary Lewis from Sprint, and Meredith Raymond from Life Technologies discussing effective use of scorecard data. Attendees learned about the need for greater data transparency between brands and suppliers, and how these companies use various types of scorecards to assess supplier performance. Many are using the scorecards as a tool to share best business practices with their suppliers and as a vehicle to give suppliers greater visibility into how and why they receive certain scores, and how they rank against their competitors. In some cases the scorecards act as a starting point in a discussion about solutions and potential collaborations between companies and suppliers.

Chicken or Egg panel

Moderated by Erin Billman of Blu Skye, the panel agreed that food waste is an area ripe for innovation. An estimated 40% of food produced goes to waste. Biodigestion, closed loop systems, portion control and better food donation systems were all floated as potential solutions. The Feeding Forward app is one solution that will help clients seamlessly offer donations directly to local social service organizations.

Companies from various sectors highlighted in this breakout, which included sustainability executives from Intel, Unilever and Vancity, discussed the methods that their respective companies use to talk and walk the sustainability message. They focused on finding appropriate HR incentives for their company and employees. Based on the audience poll, financial rewards in some form was the leading response in regards to corporate incentives. However, the companies on the panel focused on intrinsic compensations to make the largest impact.

Jonathan Atwood, VP of Sustainable Living at Unilever, spoke of the importance of providing opportunities for enlightened self-interest. This provides authentic leadership and resilient emotions that delivers passion from employees to believe in their life’s purpose.

An example of this concept can be seen from Intel’s Sustainability in Action Program, used to highlight empowering ways employees can innovate in their company and community. These ideas and projects are funded by Intel to recognize purposeful ways employees can change their environment. Past ideas have included: having a sustainability speaker series at various locations, using café waste composting in respective buildings, and developing algae biofuel.

Candice McLeod, Mike Hower, Courtney Pankrat, Samuel Benoit, Jessica Rush and Mara Slade contributed to this report.

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