Tina Nguyen Christian Yonkers and Geoff Nudelman
Published 2 years ago.
About a 11 minute read.
Image: Rick Ridgeway takes the main stage at SB'21 San Diego on Oct. 18. | Sustainable Brands
At SB’21 San Diego, leaders from a variety of industries and disciplines seemed to agree on three key drivers necessary for the regenerative leadership our world needs.
Nestlé CMO Aude Gandon discusses 'Generation Regeneration'
With Regeneration as the theme, many of the conversations at SB’21 San
turned to ‘how do we get there from here?’ Throughout the week, experts and
innovators across industries seemed to agree on three key drivers necessary for
the regenerative leadership our world needs: authenticity, purpose and
egalitarianism — in work, as well as society.
The first moments of the opening night plenary felt like
tracking the ebbs and flows of the last 19 months.
In the first in-person gathering in two-and-a-half years, Sandy Skees — SB
Board Chair and EVP/Global Lead of Purpose and Impact, JEDI Advisory Services at
Porter Novelli — began with remarks about how the perception of both
individuals and executives had changed since the pandemic began.
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“Words matter,” she emphasized — noting that at the first SB conference in 2007,
Hurricane Katrina’s impact was just being understood on a climate scale when
the IPCC said it was “unequivocally” caused by climate change.
SB founder and CEO Koann Skrzyniarz offered more optimistic glimpses,
highlighting the 600 attendees together, in San Diego — along with another few
thousand tuning in virtually, globally — for a total of 3,000 people trading
ideas and perspectives in these defining times.
She was clear that there couldn’t be a return to pre-pandemic “normal,” and
working to forge new paths ahead for a better future for businesses and
That better future is a cornerstone of the week’s theme: Regeneration.
It’s something Regenerative Business
Summit founder Carol Sanford
noted in recorded remarks challenging attendees to shift from prior, fragmented
notions to thinking about solutions as a whole and seeing the potential in that
Of course, there’s plenty of uncertainty around how best to make that shift; and
Robertson attempted to tackle
that head on through a lens of leadership.
“Uncertainty is a theme — the elephant in the room and the opportunity,” he
said. “Leadership is shared, and we need to start treating it that way.”
While noting just how uncertain most of us feel in 2021, he highlighted great
opportunity within that risk. Regenerative strategies can feel risky; but with
the right leadership, they can also lead to great reward.
And what does that reward look like? It could very well be the work of biology
consultancy Biomimicry 3.8.
Managing Director Nicole Miller spoke about her team’s efforts to build
modern design inspired by nature, building the next generation of sustainable
structures and infrastructure. She pointed to examples — including Ford’s
new EV plant in Tennessee, a water filtration system in urban Atlanta
and a popular bat refuge bridge in Austin, TX.
“(We want to build) what it looks like to move beyond zero,” Miller said, noting
real purpose behind each “B3” (shorthand for the organization’s name)
Patagonia legend Rick Ridgeway then reminded the audience that all of
this work takes time and every step is another step forward. As VP of
Environmental Initiatives and Special Media Projects at the outdoor clothing
company, Ridgeway has a unique perspective on what is largely considered the
gold standard in apparel sustainability.
“The real goal isn’t the summit, but the footsteps it takes to get there,” he
said — not only talking about business, but of an incredible personal journey
with a close friend’s daughter, recounting their ascent celebrating the life of
her mountaineer father.
Nestlé CMO Aude
Gandon rounded out the opening keynotes, highlighting a range of initiatives
the 150-year-old company is working on to achieve their goal of net-zero
emissions by 2050 and its efforts to foster what it’s calling “Generation
“Step by step, we’re changing our systems everywhere,” she said, noting a
brand-new, completely solar-powered factory in Germany, among other
She cited decreases across the board in the quality of our food worldwide, and
that regeneration is one way that a business as large and wide-reaching as
Nestlé can help make a real impact — echoing one of Miller’s resounding
points from earlier.
“Nature doesn’t just bounce back,” she said, “it bounces forward.”
Ask five different sustainability leaders their opinion of what “regenerative
leadership” looks like, and you’re bound to get five different answers.
Although that’s the first question Wilhelms Consulting Group owner Pamela
Wilhelms posed in Tuesday’s discussion on “Cultivating and Training
Breakthrough Regenerative Leadership,” the consensus underscored that many
conventional forms of leadership aren’t working. The range of philosophies on
offer showed that the answer to cultivating regenerative leadership isn’t
straightforward and will require continued buy-in from those steering the ship
in all aspects of society.
“Leadership has long been focused on competition,” Izzo Associates president
and Blueprint co-founder John Izzo said. “We all
know we’ve been degenerating for a long time.”
The panel bordered on a more philosophical conversation about how to bring
sustainability into the everyday conversation from the top down — from
leadership through to employee bases and society and government in a larger
“Sometimes the magic happens from people in the field — janitors, those on the
supply chain, etc,” said Dave Ford, founder of the Ocean Plastics
This “magic” essentially revolves around a complete rethinking of the systems
and processes that drive business as we know it — no easy task. According to
Samantha Veide, Associate Director, US at Forum for the
Future, it means a complete rethinking and
the creation of new business ecosystems — “a new way of approaching things,” she
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the theories that all the panelists posed is
time. If current systems stay as they are, meeting any climate goals — whether
or carbon neutrality by 2050 — won’t happen in time to stop the climate
degeneration we’re all working to reverse.
“Unless we hack the system (government and business), we won’t get the change
we need fast
founder Daniel Aronson echoed
many of the sentiments: “A different end point means a different journey to get
there,” he added.
Part of accelerating the change is getting employees and smaller stakeholders to
buy in. Wilhelms noted a conversation with Seventh Generation founder and
former CEO Jeffrey Hollender, where he wanted to make sure that employees of
the company felt like they were part of something more than just a paycheck.
“(He aimed) to make employees feel part of something bigger than themselves,”
We First founder and CEO Simon
Mainwaring has long served global companies by carving out identity and
meaning in a rapidly changing world. Mainwaring’s Wednesday workshop explored a
radical re-engineering of business based on collectivized purpose to address
global problems while keeping the doors of business open.
The future of business, Mainwaring said, must be one which makes net-positive
outcomes for business, people and the planet not only possible, but inevitable.
Mainwaring shared his vision of achieving this goal, drawing from his new
book, Lead with We,
to describe the “Virtuous Spiral of Collectivized Purpose in Action.” The spiral
reimagines leadership and re-engineers company culture, culminating in brands as
an inevitable force for positive change and growth.
With the latest IPCC
casting damning prospects for global inaction, Mainwaring’s insights are a last
call as much as they are inspirational.
“We’re out of time; and there’s going to be huge consequences — not just for
people, but for businesses,” he said.
Business response to COVID, racial tensions, and unprecedented climate
emergencies in ‘20-’21 give some reason to hope, Mainwaring said; but it’s not
enough to negate even the gentler effects of what’s coming. Those who do
nothing or not
will not stand in the court of public
especially as climate and social woes come to a head.
“Your social license to operate will be revoked if you are not clearly defined
and articulate about the role your company is playing in the world,” he said.
Mainwaring’s Virtuous Spiral starts at the individual and spirals upward to
Individuals: Recognize new realities, grasp urgency, shift thinking, and
Leaders: Define company purpose and goals. Find your secret
conduct an honest audit, and determine your reasons for existing.
and align internal
Community: Mobilize brand communities and build movements.
Society: Collaborate cross-sector and shape culture.
Transcendence: Evolve principles and practices to scale human and
“This is about the aggregate of all of these efforts,” Mainwaring said. “We are
not moving far enough fast enough to meet these contracted timelines alone.”
The stakes have never been higher, and stakeholders are ready to join the table.
Everyone is awakened to the fact that business-as-usual is not serving the
Brands, he said, need to be community architects, rallying collectively around
shared values instead of pitching
IKEA, for example, now
climate-positive energy options to customers. When did that become a brand
By Leading with We.
L-R: Edward Wang, Nick Street, Taryn Bird, Roxana Shirkhoda and James Thomas
The hard work of delivering on the wave of social-justice
made from the private sector during 2020 is just beginning. On Wednesday
afternoon, representatives from Alaska
Airlines, Kate Spade,
Vans and Zoom came together to share insights gained from their
authentic work to champion equity and justice. Moderator Edward Wang,
Director of Corporate Social Impact at Tides, specified that equity and
justice are inclusive of race, but also all other demographic factors — such as
disability status, refugee status, and others.
“The only path to adjust wealth is equity for all,” Wang said.
After 19 months of a global pandemic, mental
is finally being recognized as a critical aspect in the sustainability
conversation. Taryn Bird, Senior Director of Social Impact at Kate Spade New
York, shared that gender equity has been foundational in the company, but
stressed that “the topic of mental health is intersectional to the challenges we
face in society today.”
A refining moment for the company’s social impact work came through a
partnership with a social entrepreneurship program based in
program demonstrated the significant impacts of investing in a woman’s mental
health in addition to her economic security. Focusing on mental health support
has evolved to be a global initiative both externally and internally.
Roxana Shirkhoda is Head of Social Impact at Zoom — a company that
exemplifies the innovation that can occur in a time of crisis. Zoom partnered
with an advisory council with a deep portfolio of social-justice organizations
to strategize and execute the most just direction for $1 million in
philanthropic grants. Zoom did not have a seat at the decision table. Wang
applauded this action, saying: “Lift up the voices of those with lived
experiences; and give away not only money, but also
Meanwhile, innovation in equity and justice at Alaska Airlines has focused on
creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, where employees can feel safe
bringing their whole, authentic selves to work. James Thomas, Alaska’s
Director of DEI, highlighted growing the leadership team to be representative of
the frontline workers, creating leadership pathways for young people, and
leaning into engagement surveys to weigh in on subjects that are important to
the community. Pushed by employees to make a bold statement, Alaska partnered
with UNCF to convert some of its planes into powerful
with artwork showing brown and black faces to promote racial equity everywhere
Vans was founded on a culture of self-expression and
creativity, where skateboarding has helped both consumers and employees alike.
Nick Street — VP of Global Integrated Marketing at Vans, VF Outdoor —
acknowledges the company has a huge role in diversifying skateboarding (not
known for its gender inclusivity). Six years ago, Vans created a global
skateboarding league for women who then went on to compete in the 2021 Olympics,
exuding an overwhelming and unprecedented level of skill and deep camaraderie —
an example of true impact that Vans refers to.
A resounding theme from the panel is that social impact work must be designed
with authenticity. As Street pointed out, from Vans’ perspective: “As a leader
with the Generation Z workforce — if you’re not authentically showing up, they
will call you out.”
Published Nov 10, 2021 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Tina is a sustainability consultant with EcoNomics, Inc. She is a longtime surfer who is passionate about the world of waste.
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.
Geoff is a freelance journalist and copywriter focused on making the world a better place through compelling copy. He covers everything from apparel to travel while helping brands worldwide craft their messaging. In addition to Sustainable Brands, he's currently a contributor at Penta, AskMen.com, Field Mag and many others. You can check out more of his work at geoffnudelman.com.