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The Next Economy
Brands Putting Rubber to Road to Create a Regenerative Near-Future

Keynotes on day 2 of SB’23 San Diego touched on everything from optimizing global companies’ resource use, building regenerative supply chains, and partnerships addressing the environmental and human impacts of plastic pollution to standing firm in the face of backlash.

Sam Monnie

“When frogs are making noise, the cows will still drink water.”

Sam Monnie, Sustainable Brands®’ (SB) VP of Marketing and Thought Leadership, opened Tuesday's plenary by urging delegates to stay on course and avoid being distracted by “all the noise that might prevent us from doing the work.”

P&G pledges to keep improving lives, renews focus on water stewardship

Virginie Helias

Monnie was ably supported by a cast of inspiring business players. First up, the inimitable Virginie Helias — Chief Sustainability Officer at Procter & Gamble — reminisced about her last 10 years of visits to SB’s flagship event. Back in 2014, she was still figuring out how to reimagine the culture and business practices of the consumer goods giant.

“We’ve had a few successes along the way; but progress has not been as fast as I had hoped,” she told the crowd. One of those successes has been in sufficiently engaging the C-Suite at P&G to get them to take part in SB events. Previously, Helias has shared the stage with the firm’s Chief Brand Officer, Chief R&D and Innovation Officer, and Chief Finance Officer.

This year, it was President and CEO Jon Moeller’s turn to speak with the sustainability community. In a pre-recorded video interview with Helias, Moeller shared how the business has successfully managed the tension between continued growth and advancing sustainability.

“If we think about the improvements that products bring to people’s lives, they are significant,” he says. “To step back from those responsibilities would be irresponsible. We must continue to improve life for people but do it in a sustainable way.

“The red line we cannot cross is on the performance of our products. If the performance isn’t good, nobody will buy our products and we will not have a business — and our desire to advance sustainability for the good of the planet will go nowhere.”

Unlike in the past — when P&G’s product innovation was conducted with a “closed-arms mentality” — today, the company is more open to working with others to scale solutions more effectively. Moeller points to the example of polypropylene, a notoriously hard-to-recycle plastic: “Our team invented a different method for recycling polypropylene — one that removed odor and pigments — so that at the end of the recycling process, it is able to be more widely used and is worth more,” Moeller said. “But we don’t have enough of a need for the technology to scale it and make it economically attractive; so, we’ve licensed the tech to a company that can make more use of it across multiple industries.”

To wrap, Helias excitedly shared P&G’s updated approach to managing water — including building a coalition of partners focused on helping people conserve the natural resource in water-stressed parts of the world.

“Without water, people are forced make trade-offs; washing your hair or your clothes is not top of your priority list. So, we’re trying to build a water-positive future in 18 water-stressed areas, by helping to restore habitats in critical areas.”

P&G is also focused on managing water at its own operations: The company’s Charmin and Bounty plant in Utah has already reduced water use by 30 percent.

Visa is using its ‘superpower’ to make sustainable lifestyles sexy

Doug Sabo

Next, Visa Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Sabo made a similarly energized presentation on the main stage. Promising to avoid a “brag session,” he guided delegates through how the world’s most recognized payment company is leveraging its “superpower” to help consumers do the right thing.

“We don’t make or sell anything. But we do see, and enable, consumption all over the world,” he said.

Every second, Visa oversees 6,000 transactions. And it wants to remove the barriers to sustainable consumption via those transactions — whether that’s in helping people pay for bus tickets or for charging their electric vehicles: “We want to remove the friction and make sustainable behavior attractive — sexy, even.”

It is doing this via a partnership with ecolytiq, offering customers a suite of solutions that helps people understand the carbon implications of the purchases they make.

It is also working with a range of travel agent partners to eliminate the confusion and inconsistency when it comes to marketing and selling eco-tourism online.

“We can lead horses to the water, but we need to get them to drink," Sabo asserted. "We need to make sustainability more engaging — meet consumers where they’re at, remove frictions, and use our superpower.”

Tackling the environmental and social challenges of ocean plastic pollution starts with education

Svanika Balasubramanian

In one of the most compelling case studies shared so far this week, a passionate Svanika Balasubramanian, co-founder and CEO of rePurpose Global, painted a bleak picture of the state of the world’s oceans. “While I’m talking, for the next five minutes, over six million pounds of plastic will be created. Less than 9 percent of it will be recycled, and the rest ends up in nature,” she tells delegates.

To get businesses interested in turning the tide on ocean plastic waste demands education and awareness of the problem — not just the environmental toll, but the impact felt by people caught up in the often-horrendous industry of waste picking and sorting in the Global South.

“In the absence of waste infrastructure has risen an unregulated, informal and corrupt sector which engages millions of people from impoverished communities,” she continued. “They provide a crucial, singular line of defense against the waste crisis at a terrible personal cost.”

A humbled Taylor Stanley, Corporate Impact Strategy Manager for Riverside Natural Foods, shared lessons learned so far from his company’s partnership with rePurpose. Recognizing the need to address its packaging footprint, Riverside — the company behind wholesome snack brand Made Good — has been working with the organization to “get the education we needed and hear the voices of those you can’t see.” Having spent time with waste workers in India, rePurpose has the awareness and understanding to direct action and investment where it is needed most, locally. And those insights have helped propel Riverside’s ongoing efforts to optimize its packaging and the ecosystems it affects.

“We have tried and failed by developing a paper wrapper, for example. We are still moving forward — and partnerships like this challenge us to do more,” Stanley shared. “So far, we have removed 200 million pounds of plastic from nature. I’m confident we will improve our product packaging by leveraging lessons learned over the years. We will continue to be fueled by demanding consumers. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to do more.”

Vans is revolutionizing the rubber supply chain through regenerative agriculture

After the networking break, delegates heard about the benefits of regenerative agriculture — a popular topic this week. For its part, VF Corporation — parent company of footwear brand Vans — is helping rubber farmers to practice it in a bid to address the 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the raw materials extraction component of its overall footprint. By 2030, it promises that its top 4 CO2 impact materials — cotton, poly, rubber and leather — will be either regenerative, renewable or recycled. It is focusing on regenerative ag because it “has the most potential for change and impact, benefitting the environment, society and economies,” Alyse Russel, Vans’ Senior Manager for Global Sustainability, told the crowd.

With the help of Tim Tensen, Chief Operations Officer at partner Terra Genesis, Russel explained how regenerative practices can boost yield, improve soil, enhance farmer profits and reduce the need for chemicals. The extra tree cover in plantations even makes women farmers feel safer; they no longer need to tap the rubber trees at night, as it’s cool enough in the day to do so. In an inspired piece of storytelling, Russel plays a clip of audio, comparing the noise recorded at a traditional plantation and one using regenerative techniques. The significantly louder birdsong speaks volumes.

Vans’ partnership with Terra Genesis is providing farmer training and helping to create a centralized network of enthused farmers, happy to share the benefits of regenerative. “So far, 500 farmers have shifted to regenerative agriculture at plantations in Thailand. They now have additional income streams and higher premiums for their rubber,” Russel added.

Helping purpose thrive in a push-back world

Conroy Boxhill and Sandy Skees

Porter Novelli’s Sandy Skees and Conroy Boxhill have been tasked with helping companies understand how to navigate the concept of purpose in a world seemingly dominated by anti-woke and anti-ESG sentiment. Boxhill, Porter Novelli’s US President and Corporate Counsel Lead, asked: Should business abandon the term “purpose” and revert back to simply being responsible companies?

“Purpose is a good word; it’s better than ‘corporate responsibility’ — which feels externalized, attached to a faceless corporation,” said Skees, the company’s Global Lead for Purpose & Impact. “Purpose feels personal, and it allows execs and managers to connect their own purpose to it.”

To enthuse those in the room and encourage them to stay true to their reason for being, the pair gave a sneak peek at the results of Porter Novelli’s soon-to-be-published Purpose Priorities Report 2023. The survey of 7,000 individuals reveals that 86 percent of people believe companies should improve lives. 65 percent say companies should demonstrate they are following through on their promises to the planet and society. And 82 percent believe firms should encourage consumers to support social or environmental causes: “There is a clear expectation that companies should be political and make comment on so-called ‘woke’ issues — especially from younger people,” Skees said.

Boxhill says that while communicating intent on such issues is all well and good: “Demonstrate what you’re doing; don’t just say something.”

But at a time when businesses face increased scrutiny over greenwash and are dealing with an anti-woke backlash, should companies really take a stand on political and social issues at all?

“No brand can be vocal on every issue,” Skees said. “The first step is to assess what issues are most salient to your brand. And then show up as an ally, advocate or activist.”

Being an ally is about using your brand’s superpower and standing up for groups who are suffering or need support, she added. “It’s about courage. Your stakeholders are expecting you to say something. Saying nothing also says something.”

Bayer is using tech to help farmers boost yields and improve resilience

Leo Bastos

Before Micah Kane, CEO of Hawaii Community Foundation, wrapped up the morning session with an emotional appeal for continued corporate support to help Maui recover from this summer’s wildfires, Bayer Crop Science shared another impactful case study.

Leo Bastos, Bayer’s SVP of Global Commercial Ecosystems, explained how the business is working with partners to drive regenerative-ag practices down the value chain to cut emissions and reduce the impact on the environment. Global food systems are under pressure; and adopting regenerative practices is the only answer, he tells the audience. On the screen, the story of Engel Family Farms in central Virginia is told through the eyes of a farmer who hails the importance of using practices including cover crops and no tilling to keep carbon in the soil and find new revenue streams.

Bastos walked delegates through a series of innovations being used by farmers to do more with less: “Precision tools increase accuracy, improve yield, and maximize every acre, while conserving resources.”

Perry Aulie — SVP of Value-Added Products at Perdue Farms — explained how his $10 billion, 100-year-old company is benefiting. By collecting data to showcase the improvements regenerative agriculture is yielding and playing that back to the network of farmers, it is showing that it is cost effective to bring lower-carbon products to market: “Farmers get incremental revenue opportunities and improve the quality of their soil. Companies get to show Scope 3 emissions reductions, and consumers have better visibility over what they are buying.”