Tom Idle and Sustainable Brands
Published 4 years ago.
About a 10 minute read.
Image: Sustainable Brands Paris
Across Europe, activists demanding more action on issues that matter have taken over the narrative. Tapping into business innovation to help change the world for the better is now firmly accepted as a crucial part of the puzzle. As speakers highlighted this theme in various ways throughout the day, three key lessons rose to the fore.
Sustainable Brands ‘19 Paris could not have opened at a more apposite
moment. Across Europe, activists demanding more action on issues that matter
have taken over the narrative. From the gilets jaunes movement in the French
capital, calling for more just tax reforms for the working classes; to London’s
student-led protests from Extinction Rebellion, urging governments to do
more to reverse global warming — the expectation for those in power to take
action has reached a fever pitch.
Of course, at the heart of current conversations is the business community. But
that wasn’t the case 15 years ago, when Sustainable Brands first launched.
“We started with a vision, a desire to change the narrative common in the world
today — that business was the enemy, and that governments and NGOs were going to
save us,” founder KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz said in her opening address to
the gathered delegates inside the impressive Carrousel du Louvre event
centre, beneath the famous museum.
Instead, tapping into business innovation to help change the world for the
better is now firmly accepted as a crucial part of the puzzle. As speakers
highlighted this theme in various ways throughout the day, three key lessons
rose to the fore.
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The first plenary session of the three-day event heard from two of the
businesses leading such a charge: food giant Danone and carpet-tile
Both say there is a real need to be bold and brave in not only setting ambitious
goals to reduce impacts, such as emissions and resource use, but in promising to
go further in pursuing a purpose rather than merely chasing profits.
L-R: Interface's Erin Meezan, GlobeScan's Chris Coulter and Danone's Emmanuel Faber | Image credit: SB'19 Paris/Twitter
“If we are not bold, we face the risk of being meaningless, and dead as
businesses,” said Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber. Excited by the fact more and
more companies are using the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to find
something to make their work more useful, he also pointed to the need for brand
“Gilets jaunes is a brand, as is Extinction Rebellion,” he added. More than
corporates taking action, Faber wants to see brands created out of ideas,
developing focal points for action and making sure the people behind the brands
come to the fore to serve a purpose.
But with so many sustainability issues to be tackle, what action to take? Well,
there are 17 SDGs; pick whichever you want, Faber said. But it’s not necessarily
about the size of the goal being set, more about the consistency applied by a
brand to achieving it: “It’s about changing how we do things, and then being
It’s also about admitting that nobody is perfect – something big companies,
including Danone, hate to do, he added.
Bold leadership is the reason that most people put their hands up when asked by
session moderator Chris Coulter from GlobeScan whether they know of
Interface — a relatively small manufacturing business based in the US.
“Our founder, Ray Anderson, set out to transform the business and cut our
carbon footprint by 70 percent to help protect the environment,” said Erin
Meezan, the company’s VP and Chief Sustainability Officer.
The decision to turn the business around, she reminds us, was prompted by a
customer conversation. A missed opportunity to sell carpet tiles to one of
California’s newest green-building projects, forced Anderson to ask different
questions of himself and his team — to change the company mindset.
Twenty-five years since Anderson’s Mission Zero
was implemented, the passing of the company’s founder and the introduction of a
new CEO presented an opportunity to renew the mission and go even further,
Meezan said: “We knew we needed to raise the bar — to go from being a company
doing less bad, to one that created a positive impact in the world.”
Now, Interface is on a mission to reverse global
— words chosen “by design” to align the business with a problem that clearly
needs solving, and getting the company away from incremental shifts of
environmental impact reduction.
It doesn’t get much bolder than that. Sustainable Brands Paris is off to a
Half of the world’s people live in a city. Around 70 percent of the planet’s
greenhouse emissions come from cities. In many ways, the city is where many of
our environmental and social problems exist.
But it is also where many of the sustainable solutions will be created. This
makes the city the ultimate playground for brands to engage with citizens and
consumers on issues that matter most to them.
It is in this context that SB’19 Paris’ first New Spaces session kicked off,
exploring how the city can be transformed so that brands can better be creative
in talking to, and encouraging action from, the people that live, work and play
Jean-Louis Missika, Deputy Mayor of Paris, acknowledged a more pointed
appetite for action on climate change, something that is happening in all
“Pollution, social discrimination, segregation, migrants — all of these problems
are related in some way to the climate crisis,” he said.
In the French capital, the local authority has worked hard to democratise the
government response to environmental issues. It asks Parisians to propose
sustainable projects for the city — to design them, to vote on which should take
priority, and to then implement them. “It’s participatory democracy, sharing
decisions to do things,” he added, pointing to the overwhelming number of votes
from citizens for the Mayor’s office to support greening the city as a “good
clue as to what’s important for the city”.
But there is a real role for businesses to step up in support of local projects.
Elisabeth Laville, founder of
— an organisation that has been looking at city trends for 25 years — says there
is an increased expectation for brands to get involved in cities, not only to
minimise their negative impacts, but also to make a positive contribution.
“More retailers are turning their stores into community hubs, offering free
activities for people,” she said, highlighting sports stores hosting yoga
sessions, and Apple stores offering free coding lessons for children. “For
retailers, it’s not just about selling stuff. People want an experience, too.”
She also explored how brands are adopting localised business models and
marketing. If a company’s purpose is to create jobs in a particular city, that’s
what they should do — rather than expanding their brands to neighbouring cities,
merely to offer the same products and services. Detroit-based
Shinola employs more than 600 people in the city. It
started by making watches; now it makes bicycles and has even opened a hotel —
all with the sole purpose of creating
in “America’s Comeback
The session also heard from Devita Davison from FoodLab Detroit, a
non-profit that supports
in getting their food businesses to scale — in a city that went from being the
US’ fourth richest, to filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy in history in
a span of 50 years.
“We must pay attention to our cities,” she warned before proudly explaining the
FoodLab story. Borne out of necessity — the people of Detroit had been
devastated by poor access to good, healthy food, with some communities going 30
years without a local sit-down restaurant — FoodLab is a growing community of
local businesses being run by people that had faced food challenges in the first
place. “We had to do something to build healthy communities,” Davison added.
“Our administration was focused on the police and safety, not sustainability,
small business or entrepreneurs. Things have changed now, though.”
Preoccupied with thoughts of the Olympic Games, coming to Paris in 2024, Missika
said that brands will need to be challenged on sustainability if they want to be
“Coca-Cola is a big supporter of the Games, and we have a big plastics
Similarly, Toyota is a big supporter, so we will need a strong conversation
about electric cars.”
With a nod to Davison’s Detroit history lesson, Missika warned: “Just because a
city is in a good shape, that doesn’t mean it will last forever.”
The adage, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” got a wellbeing update
today with the advice to ‘be happy while being that change.’
The ‘Feel Good’ sessions on Tuesday afternoon focused on happiness, highlighting
the need for a personal reason to engage, finding happiness at work, and how to
make consumers feel good for doing good. At one point, the audience was plunged
into darkness, while being exhorted not to be afraid of happiness (or the dark).
When considering the power of storytelling, the question arose: To what extent
are young people (Millennials and Gen Z influenced by brands, and how much do
brands need to reflect youth culture?
L-R: Solitaire Townsend (moderator), Xavier Guilbert, Lucie Beudet, Stephen Greene | Image credit: Omar Havana/Sustainable Brands
Specifically, is there any role for sustainability in the storytelling in
computer games? Xavier Guilbert, Senior Creative Partner at Ubisoft — creators of the
popular “Assassin’s Creed” series of games — spoke of the opportunity and
responsibility of recreating a living world.
“The fact that technology is now ever present is both a challenge and an
opportunity,” he said. “Our mission statement is to enrich our players’ lives.
We do this by giving out a view of the world.”
While he was quick to assert that it is not the role of computer games to
educate, he recognised the responsibility to present an accurate view of the
“We are recreating worlds that are inspired by the real world — we have to ‘go
smell the grass.’ For example, we sent a team from Quebec to Greece in
Spring. They saw this lush land with butterflies and flowers, which was not at
all the image of dry land they expected. That’s the kind of thing you don’t get
from Google maps.”
How influential can storytelling be in creating real change? Suggestions were
made that the youth climate strikes in the UK reflected a generation weaned on
Harry Potter and young heroes overturning power.
However, the influence is not all one way. Stephen Greene, co–founder and
CEO at Rockcorps, noted: “It’s important to understand there is a behaviour
change that we have to follow; we don’t lead it.”
So, what are the behavioural characteristics of younger people that brands
should tap into? Lucie Beudet, co-founder of Konbini — a multi-format media
company producing a mix of culture, art and news content, aimed at younger users
— noted the immediacy required by a younger audience: “What I like the most is
the now, compared to the 2020, or 2025 targets. There would be a huge
disappointment if we are not able to give them an answer now. They can’t wait.
For them, everything is direct, live and spontaneous.”
Echoing previous calls to be transparent in storytelling, Lucie’s final advice
to brands was “Don’t fake it. Do it soon.”
Published Apr 23, 2019 8pm EDT / 5pm PDT / 1am BST / 2am CEST
Tom is founder of storytelling strategy firm Narrative Matters — which helps organizations develop content that truly engages audiences around issues of global social, environmental and economic importance. He also provides strategic editorial insight and support to help organisations – from large corporates, to NGOs – build content strategies that focus on editorial that is accessible, shareable, intelligent and conversation-driving.