Utopies:
Localizing the Sustainable Economy

This is one of a series of interviews by students and alumni from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) with practitioners from the Sustainable Brands community, on a variety of ways organizations can, and are, Redesigning the Good Life.

Elisabeth Laville is the founder and chief entrepreneur of Utopies, a certified B Corp and leading European sustainable consulting firm and think tank located in Paris, France. Utopies works with businesses to integrate sustainability into all levels of a company, beginning with creating intention, then seeking business model and product innovation as an expression of that intention. Laville believes business should operate with purpose, and that purpose must be ingrained in the fabric of the organization.

Lately, Utopies has been focused on what Laville calls City X Brand partnerships – looking for ways for business to have positive, localized impacts in the communities in which they work, sell and manufacture. I caught up with Laville from her office in Paris to learn more.

What was the inspiration behind the establishment of Utopies as a consultancy?

EL: We started 25 years ago on a mission to open new paths, to help redefine the positive role of business in society, and to show that harnessing the power of business to effect social change is in a business’ interest, too. 10-20 percent of our time is devoted to our think-tank activities, exploring emerging topics or practices, publishing notes and reports to share our thoughts and learnings, launching initiatives to advance some key topics … Our initial inspiration, in fact, is very much similar to what we found in the B Corp movement, for whom we are the French country partner (and the first French certified company) — we believe a brand/company can be for profit and for purpose, which is why we focus our energy these days on three powerful pinpoints to further embed sustainability in business strategy: the convergence between sustainability and innovation; the integration of sustainability in brand positioning (with our Positive Brand® framework); and the maximization of local footprint of businesses — whether local is where they source, produce or sell.

You hosted a deep dive session on city-brand collaboration this summer at SB’18 Vancouver, the theme of which was “Redesigning the Good Life.” What does “the good life” mean to you, and what role does design play in it?

EL: I think that the Greek idea of the good life is one that allows individual progress and flourishing, positive human relations with family and friends, as well as rich experiences of what it means to be alive. If design is defined as the first signal of human intention, as Bill McDonough says, then design has a lot to do with the good life — not because a good life is necessarily full of stuff, not because it depends on the mere accumulation of material goods; but because it can be enabled by products, services and activities, provided they are designed with the intention to facilitate or activate the good life in each person. Which is the whole point of a brand purpose, as well as of sustainability, as well as of positive innovation, for example — which are key to harnessing to power of business and brands to help us, individually and collectively, achieve the good life.

Does our focus on consumption and consumers work against us in this regard?

EL: Obviously, products and activities which facilitate the good life are not necessarily in the commercial/material sphere: family and social bonds, culture, art, sport, leisure, community life or contact with the natural world are very efficient antidotes to the over-consumption frenzy of our times. Sustainable consumption is therefore not so much about maintaining our current consumption levels while switching to ‘green’ products than it is about a fundamental change in our culture and lifestyle — reconsidering the role of material consumption in our lives and in our society. It should not be seen as the unique gateway to happiness and social status any more. We should reconsider the balance in our lives between material values ​​and immaterial ones.

French psychiatrist Christophe André compares consumption to the street lamp below which a man seeks his keys: Even if he lost them elsewhere, this is where he seeks them because that is where the light is. Consumption is like light — an easy solution, accessible with the click of a mouse, without leaving home, at any time of day or night, even with money we do not have. That's why it's hard not to fall into the trap of consumption. The good life, in fact, starts by asking oneself, before buying something: "Do I really need this? Or am I looking for an easy consolation to a deeper, inner need?”

Tell me more about your work on City x Brand partnerships.

EL: We see that “local first” is the new motto in consumers’ expectations, but also in the organization of production (custom design, small series, micro-production in fab labs or small factories, local sourcing, local certification…) or in corporate governance (local ownership, local jobs, micro-franchises, local crowdfunding, local entrepreneurs). Local also makes more sense in terms of sustainability — in terms of environmental impact, of reconnecting those who produce and those who consume in a community, of improving the resilience of local economies who are too dependent on imports & exports, and in terms of enhancing/preserving cultural diversity versus the standardization of “made in world” products.

Cities are, of course, the best place to intervene on several key sustainability issues: mobility, housing/buildings, health, food, waste, water, biodiversity, etc. On top of this, two key trends of new and more sustainable business models are, in essence, local and urban: the circular economy and the sharing economy! Last but not least, cities and local authorities are in better position to achieve systemic change: They can work on people behavior/education as well as on infrastructures and rules. They can mix a bottom-up approach (learning from what works on the field) and a top-down approach (changing regulations, norms, infrastructures, etc.).

What do you see as the role of business in driving sustainable change within communities?

EL: The role of business in driving local changes within communities is key. Obviously, the business model of such approaches needs to be further explored, because if companies want to drive change on topics related to the common good, they must do that with an ecosystem of community partners.

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