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The Next Economy
To Build Back Better Post-Pandemic, We Must Re-Examine Lessons Learned from the Past

The pandemic has laid bare not only the many flaws in our global systems but also our capacity for resilience and ingenuity in the face of complex, immediate challenges — if we apply that thinking to those that lay ahead, we may yet save ourselves from ‘business as usual.’

Over the past two years, brands have been focused on how to respond to the pressing daily challenges facing their workers and communities. Now, it’s time to look both back and forward to understand why the current system is leading towards planetary disaster, and how we can build a system that allows for a sustainable and equitable future.

“In order to get to the sustainable, regenerative future we need, we need to slow down, restore our connections to ourselves, our families, and people around the world,” said Sustainable Brands™ founder & CEO KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz. “We need to relearn from the stories that have changed us through history and helped us evolve — and, together, write a better story for our future.”

This was the main focus during the first day of the 2022 Sustainable Brands Kuala Lumpur conference, held June 21-22 virtually for the second straight year, due to COVID. The theme: Build Back Better.

“With the global pandemic and all the uncertainty in the world today, it is time to stop and take stock of where we are, how we got here, what we can learn from our past in designing a better a future,” said Gerald Miranda, the head of Sustainable Brands Malaysia and chairman of brand strategy firm Acacia Blue.

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One key thread was that the pandemic showed that a new way of business is not only necessary, but possible.

“We could maintain the underlying values of this system that will lead to ecological and civilizational collapse; or we could begin to change the underlying values of this system, leading to a cultural transformation around the world, an ecological civilization,” said Jeremy Lance, author and founder of The Liology Institute.

In Malaysia, the pandemic has resulted in strict Movement Control Orders that, like the lockdowns that took place in many other parts of the world, limited the mobility of Malaysians in the name of public health. The most impacted were low-income residents, refugees and minorities, who had less access to capital and often were unable to make enough of a living — a sign of things to come as the climate crisis worsens.

“Those more marginalized have been disproportionately impacted; and many of them come from low-wage industries with minimal social protection,” said Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood, a professor and Executive Director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health.

Still, in Malaysia, there was a recognition that many companies need to expand their efforts around sustainability. Margie Ong, founder and CEO of Malaysian sustainability consultancy Thoughts in Gear, provided participants with clear guidelines towards making sustainability a new normal at their companies by leveraging value levers to reduce risks and unlock growth opportunities. She also shared Thoughts in Gear's eight-step sustainable adoption methodology, along with other methodologies brands can utilize to measure their progress.

“Sustainability is truly your new normal,” Ong said. “In order to reduce risks, ensure that you are in fact not just within the conversation around sustainability in your industry, but ahead of the game.”

Abdul Sani Abdul Murad, Group Chief Marketing Officer of RHB Banking Group, cautioned against taking a one-size-fits-all approach, understanding that each customer has unique desires and needs.

“There’s no single sustainability consumer,” Sani said. “Their values and attitudes vary, depending on the situation. A customer who is faced with climate calamities, your interest will be related to climate. But if you are urban poor, climate is not your main agenda.”

Another key point was consumers’ need for sustainable choices, and that those choices must be accessible. Michelle Nunis has taken that to heart as she aims to create healthy snack alternatives for Malaysians with her startup, Viana Beans.

“Healthy food is the right of every Malaysian; if you choose to go in that direction, they should be made affordable for everyone,” Nunis said. “I’m very passionate about that — I don’t believe this is a niche product.”

For brands looking to start this journey, participants shared various tools, measurement frameworks and platforms to assist them in making sustainability central to their business. This includes several tools from Sustainable Brands, available to brands not only in Malaysia, but other parts of Asia and around the world — including the Brands for Good collaboratory, aimed at helping brands direct their marketing power to make sustainable lifestyles achievable; the Pull Factor Workshop, which helps marketers explore how to create a pull towards sustainability by surfacing unmet consumer needs; and the Brand Transformation Roadmap, which helps sustainability professionals understand progress and areas of improvement within a company.

Participants also learned about the results from the first-ever Socio-Cultural Trend Tracker research in Asia. This research, conducted in four Asian countries including Malaysia, provided the first-ever consumer insights into how to connect with Malaysians around sustainability. For example, it showed that, for many Malaysians, the desire to eat more plants isn’t due to climate concerns, but health. It also showed that a key reason that many didn’t take action around sustainability is that they didn’t know where to start.

“There’s an opportunity for brands who want to help Malaysian consumers who want to pay more attention to fostering resilient societies,” said Acacia Blue Managing Director Sharmini Nagulan, while presenting the findings.

One of the highlights of the conference was the powerful talk from Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood, who presented planetary health as a framework for understanding our impact on the planet. The concept, first introduced in 2015, has taken on a new, clear purpose since the onset of the pandemic.

“There is no doubt we need a new system,” she said; but she believes a better future is possible. “Humanity, you and I, are the most powerful force sharing the future of the earth. It all comes down to individual behavior changes triggering collective action.”