Marketing and Comms
From Conflicted to Regenerated in 4 Days:
A Reflection on the Activists of SB '14 San Diego

If I had written this last Tuesday, it would have been titled “Environmental activists stoop to new low: Spend money to rent boat to illegally trespass to protest sustainability conference.” However, after three days with thought leaders in corporate sustainability, my sentiments have shifted.

When protestors from Forest Ethics showed up at the Sustainable Brands 2014 San Diego conference on Monday of last week to call out 3M for deforestation, I felt disappointed and somewhat embarrassed to call myself an activist. When those protestors upped the ante and rented a boat to put themselves right in the middle of the conference breakouts and networking breaks, my frustration soared to infuriation. For the next two days, my passion for environmental sustainability got the best of me.

The activists were punishing companies for doing exactly what they wanted: tackling the tough issues by collaborating with others and having authentic conversations about the challenges and successes they face.

I felt conflicted. As both an activist and an aspiring corporate sustainability professional, I strongly believe that the two groups are working toward the same goal, however, my co-op roommates and other activists often guilt me into feeling otherwise. The hush-hush nature of the conversation about the activists on our doorstep at SB suggests that some people in corporate sustainability feel uneasy about their relationships, too.

On Tuesday, another activist group showed up – a collaborative campaign between Forest Ethics and the Sierra Club against Coke and Pepsi’s use of tar sands fuel in their fleet vehicles. In the heat of the moment, I wanted to take a stand and scream from the rooftops to the activist community, “Don’t you understand? This is so unproductive, ineffective, a waste of time and money! Why are you being so unreasonable? Why won’t you just come to the table instead of kicking the chairs around the room?”

On Tuesday afternoon, despite the distractions of my impassioned cognitive dissonance, I attended a panel that focused on the successes of the collaboration between Greenpeace and Asia Pulp and Paper. Even with my muddled attention, I felt the beginnings of restored hope as the panelists highlighted that the collaboration started when they stopped demonizing each other and started talking as human beings.

That night, I had a long conversation with Joe Brewer, co-founder and Research Director of Culture 2 Inc., a “social purpose cultural creative agency.” Joe reminded me to humanize the protestors and that, ultimately, they do have good intentions, even if we disagree with the delivery. He gave me some wisdom on non-judgment and patience. After that conversation, I decided to hold off publishing a blog post that would have been angry, one-sided, and lacking a dialogue – the very aspects of the activists’ campaigns with which I was frustrated.

In short, I was facing an identity crisis: I felt I was being forced to choose between my two communities. The choice in this moment was easy for me; the Sustainable Brands community instills in me hope and the conferences always leave me feeling regenerated. On the other hand, I have lately felt depleted from the constantly pessimistic tactics coming from the activist side. Admittedly, each side can digress from reality, but I have realized that it isn’t personally sustainable for me to continue to push myself to burnout when working on campaigns such as divestment. In the months leading up to the conference, I had been struggling to try to find an effective way to get this across to activists without alienating myself or receiving a defensive response. I had been largely unsuccessful. I had hoped to bring this topic to SB to discuss with some specific thought leaders – and here it was, front and center, just not in the package I had imagined.

On Wednesday, when Gayle Schueller of 3M spoke, there was valid apprehension that the activists might find a way in to disrupt the talk. I had a secret and highly unrealistic fantasy that the activists would cause a ruckus, Schueller would call them on stage, and all 1,000 attendees would witness a rational dialogue that is a rare occurrence and even less frequently seen by the public. Of course, no such thing happened. As Schueller made her way cautiously through her talk, the activists either weren’t present or didn’t make their presence known, and she made no mention of them.

On Wednesday night, when the activists arrived with a “floatzilla” of ten kayaks at the public beach where Sustainable Brands was hosting a BBQ, I was reduced to giggles. Amidst the kayakers holding a sign that said “No Tarsands” were our very own SB attendees practicing yoga on paddleboards (an activity offered all week by Sustainable Surf). The dichotomy of the floatzilla and yogis was so dramatic that I felt my anxiety start to lift. After this laughably unsuccessful communication tactic and additional conversations with Bill Baue, Henk Campher, Bill Shireman and Mike Bellamente, I have initiated an ongoing conversation about how we can communicate the idea of positive messaging to activist organizers.

Throughout the conference, I heard several conference attendees say things like “that would have been me 20 years ago – I would have been in the same boat.” And even one whose response to our conversation about the activists was that he was about to RSVP for the People’s Climate March in NYC in September.

What if we allowed ourselves to admit that we are both activists and corporates? On Monday night, SB CEO KoAnn Skrzyniarz boldly and optimistically stated, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. It’s not someone else who’s going to make the world a better place – it’s us!” What if we could create a joint mission statement?

For years now, corporate sustainability has been working to create a language that communicates positive ROI with financial departments and investors, and communications benefits with marketing departments and consumers. Isn’t it time that they work with activists to create a common change-maker language?

What if instead of fighting activists every step of the way, corporations could use their research and knowledge of what is important at the grassroots level to prioritize sustainability campaigns and improvements?

What if instead of fighting corporations every step of the way, activists could communicate their demands in a language that promoted positive change rather than aggravation and negative publicity?

What if that shared language allowed for an expressive dialogue that advanced sustainability goals faster than the stop and start of activist accusations, corporate balking, and incremental wins and concessions?

What if instead of spontaneous battles, activists forged relationships with the opposite side to create a continuous dialogue?

What if this process was regenerative for all those involved?

As Jerry Michalski said on the first day: “Trust is cheaper than control, and the outcomes are better.” What if we could all stay true to our mindful imagination of “our best possible selves in the best possible future” (as Rich Fernandez asked us to do Tuesday morning) and effectively communicate this as corporate goals and activist campaigns? I think we would find a shared language.

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