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The Next Economy
How Brands Can Help Reshape Post-COVID Public Life to Maximize People, Planet Health

In a recent webinar, representatives from PepsiCo, Vail Resorts and William & Mary shared lessons learned from preparing for our 'next normal.'

The world’s public spaces are slowly reopening in the wake of Coronavirus. During national lockdowns, which have brought the world to a standstill, the places we know and love — from schools and leisure complexes to shopping malls and town squares — have undergone significant transformation. Businesses have battled hard in the past 12 months to comply with government guidelines and ensure the safety of customers.

But as the ‘next normal’ emerges, what does the intersection of health, safety and sustainability look like in these shared spaces? How are brands and institutions safely transforming communal experiences while also promoting sustainable behaviors? These were the fundamental questions posed during the latest Sustainable Brands™ webinarPlanet Health and People Health: Reimagining Public Spaces and Experiences in a Post-COVID 19 World — hosted in partnership with SodaStream Professional.

There has been a laser sharp focus on safety for Vail Resorts, according to panelist Kate Wilson — the company’s Senior Director of Sustainability. It is a business on the path to net-zero emissions by 2030 across its 37 ski and outdoor resorts in 15 states and three countries. But the past 12 months has been about “reimagining” experiences for customers — and making sure employees are protected by requiring face coverings, implementing physical distancing, and launching its first online reservation system.

“We’re fortunate that the core of what we do is outside on our beautiful mountains and it is naturally spaced out. But certainly, safety was of the utmost importance to us this year, as it is every year,” she said.

Moderator Christine Smitz, Sustainable Brands’ Senior Manager of Member Engagement, wanted to understand what the pandemic has meant for foodservice. Self-serve and reusable options have been effective at reducing single-use plastic waste in public spaces. But what does the future hold for the sector in a COVID-conscious environment?

Eden Harris, Associate Director of Marketing at William & Mary College said the pandemic meant pivoting on its usual foodservice operation. “It has really presented some interesting challenges,” She said. “We hadn’t realized how much our behaviors have changed. I was speaking with a group of students a couple of weeks ago, and we were just talking about what we are looking forward to post-COVID, and one student made a throwaway comment that has stuck with me. She said, ‘The idea of a self-serve salad bar is now disgusting.’ Our behaviors have been changed forever.”

Harris went on to explain how the campus has managed to keep sustainability top of mind while it reconfigures its spaces to meet the health and safety needs of students and staff. As part of its goal of being carbon neutral by 2030, William & Mary will continue to make use of new technologies, she added. Its partnership with PepsiCo, and the adoption of SodaStream Professional, couldn’t have come at a better time. Initially, the plan is to incorporate the SodaStream commercial offering to those dining-in at school, and then extend it to retail and vending programs once it’s established on campus.

In the case of William & Mary, reconfiguring one location is challenging enough. So, how has Vail Resorts managed to do the same across multiple places during the pandemic? Wilson said the company had been working hard to “operationalize sustainability” — which means her and her team “having a seat at the table” for every business decision. Despite the pandemic, Vail’s commitment to net zero has not waned.

“We did a project this year to make sure excess heat is not escaping from our lift-heater stations. It’s a project we’ve now done it at two of our locations; so, we have a playbook for that, using what we’ve learned,” Wilson said.

The firm has also trained all its employees to sort waste. “We’re working on a ‘sorting playbook’ to be used across the enterprise. We’ve chosen our top restaurants that do the best with [food waste] diversion, and we’re studying why it is going so well. What's the configuration of the racks? The signage? How does it work? It’s about leveraging the power of our network, rather than having each resort spend their time trying to figure things out,” she added.

One of the key themes emerging from the conversation was collaboration and partnership, something that helps to “infuse a unique synergy in the consumer experience,” as Smitz put it. Scott Finlow, Global Chief Marketing Officer at PepsiCo Foodservice, leads brand development and consumer insights. He said that for partnership to be beneficial, having shared brand values is important: “Everything gets easier when you have that common ground.” He added that PepsiCo is continuing to look at more collaborative approaches — not just with customers, but across the industry.

“We need to make sure that we’re building the right consumer experiences that are authentic to our brands, together with our partners. That’s the way we’re going to have impact and change behaviors; and make sure that sustainability is not tangential — but in fact is the way we build our brands, the way we build our business and the way that consumers and people experience our brands. If we're doing them separately, then there's no way we're going to have the impact that we need.”

PepsiCo’s partnership with Vail Resorts is a good example, he added. It focuses on reducing beverage and food packaging waste and replacing wax-lined paper cups with compostable or durable PepsiCo products. The partners also worked with TerraCycle to create picnic tables and hundreds of Adirondack chairs out of recycled snack wrappers.

For Jason Blake, Chief Sustainability Officer for PepsiCo in North America, the pandemic offers us a chance to reflect on how companies treat people — especially employees.

“We’ve got to lean into what this moment has provided us — to transform the way we work, and reimagine workspaces as places to drive greater collaboration and do the things that require human interaction.” He concluded by promising more ambition from PepsiCo: “We’re going to think outside of the box in ways we haven’t in the past.”

The session wrapped up by each panelist reiterating the power of brands to encourage and promote positive consumer behaviors. Harris pointed to William & Mary’s proactive engagement with students, who are given a branded, reusable water bottle the first time they step onto campus. The students love personalizing the bright green bottles with their own stickers, she added. “That’s really the low-hanging fruit. Bottle-filling stations, which have superseded traditional water fountains, and the partnership with SodaStream Professional will build momentum.

“But the next challenge for us will come as we emerge from our COVID home offices and retrain the staff and faculty [on sustainable behaviors],” she asserted. “It just takes one little change from all of us to make a big impact.”