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Walking the Talk
3 Big Questions Shaping the Future of Sustainable Business in 2019

This year, we are dissecting big, open questions that could either speed up or slow down our quest toward Delivering the Good Life.

We’re barely one month into 2019, but it certainly feels like more than that.

Between the U.S. government shutdown, a viral and controversial new Gillette ad challenging men to work on toxic masculinity, the EU passing a ban on a range of single-use plastics, the mind-blowing and thought-provoking glimpses of the future at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, a major new study finding that that oceans are warming 40 percent faster than many scientists had previously estimated, the once-brilliant-now-stuck-in-outdated-thinking dynamics in Davos, never-ending Brexit drama, the Ocean Cleanup system breaking down, humanity sitting at “2 minutes to midnight” on the proverbial Doomsday Clock, the 10-year challenge on social media, a series of reports on breakthrough new biomaterials, and many other stories big and small … A lot has happened in just a few short weeks. And a ton more developments will no doubt unfold over the coming months, given the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world we now live in.

In the midst of all the good, bad and ugly types of news, 2019 is also the year the global Sustainable Brands community is entering the third phase of our Good Life initiative — the courageously optimistic quest to understand how society defines the Good Life of tomorrow and then pull together the best existing know-how and leadership carving the way forward toward redesigning business practices, products and services to actually deliver the Good Life in question. To that end, and given the context set above, we are dissecting a number of big, open questions that could either speed up or slow down this quest toward Delivering the Good Life.

Here are the 3 questions I would place at the top of that list:

1. Will companies move fast enough on climate and make the most of new partnership opportunities?

The most recent scientific studies on this have clearly indicated that the next 12 years will be critical in terms of getting our collective act together on climate. Given the political gridlock in the U.S. and other government ineffectiveness in many places around the world, business must lead on climate. And while 515 companies have already joined the Science Based Targets Initiative, and some have committed to doing their part in other ways, thousands of businesses haven’t yet stepped up to the appropriate level of action. This is why it’s critical for all corporate sustainability leaders to clearly understand how to set and reach science-based goals, and then share best practices with their peers, suppliers and partners. In 2019, we expect to see increasing pressure up and down the value chain in many industries — downstream brands incentivizing or even pushing their suppliers to decarbonize faster, for example — along with a variety of new opportunities to collaborate across sectors toward the common goal. It’s encouraging to see the progress of initiatives such as District 2030, in which cities are taking bold steps, often in partnership with or financially supported by big brands. We hope to see a lot more decisive action and creative collaboration.

2. Will brand purpose continue to rise and thrive, in light of persistent challenges and misconceptions?

Positive brand purpose has been trending for a few years now, but lately it’s reaching qualitatively new highs and tipping points. With a majority of business leaders agreeing that purpose is an essential factor for business success going forward, Millennials and Gen Z overwhelmingly naming it as a must-have for a meaningful job and life, and some of the biggest investors demanding it, it is no longer seen as a rebellious act, a privilege or an isolated phenomenon for a select few ‘Unilever types.’ A number of Fortune 500 brands have gracefully defined or redefined a positive-impact purpose and are now working to embed it properly within their entire organizations and activate it through innovation and storytelling. Others are scrambling to catch up and ‘bolt it on,’ often not so gracefully, in need of appropriate leadership and partners to improve. And of course, there is an ever-growing wave of next-generation social and environmental entrepreneurs, from B Corps to craft brands of all sorts, boasting breakthrough business models and leadership from day one. We’re also seeing growing connectedness and collaboration between old and new, with the old guard increasingly supporting their purpose journeys by acquiring, incubating and accelerating the new generation.

All is not well and good for brand purpose, however, as there are certain persistent challenges and misconceptions. This became particularly evident through the backlash that Gillette’s toxic masculinity message is experiencing — it’s surfacing a lot of cynicism and suspicion from consumers and media pundits alike. At the center of this thread of criticism are questions around the suspected conflict between purpose and profit, ‘gotcha’ attitudes using past or current company missteps as a predictor for future behavior, as well as guilty-until-proven-innocent views based on historical lack of trust. This brings us to …

3. Will business leaders improve current perceptions around authenticity, ethics and transparency?

It cannot be overstated how critical authenticity, ethics and transparency are to purpose-driven leadership. New research studies on this are finding a lot to be desired with respect to existing gaps in transparency and companies’ perceived moral compass, which unsurprisingly fuels some of the skepticism and lack of trust described above. For example, new research by HIP Investor reveals that many major corporations are not reporting on categories as basic as GHG emissions and gender equality — only 53 percent of S&P 500 companies are currently fully disclosing GHG emissions, and just 31 percent are reporting on the share of women in managerial positions. A GlobeScan survey across 23 countries ranked honesty at the bottom of the list for how companies perform, with just 14 percent approval of current levels of corporate honesty.

Anyone who has experienced authentic, transparent and mindful, purpose-driven leadership knows that there are excellent positive answers to any and every bit of criticism against purpose … IF CONCEIVED RIGHT AND EXECUTED WELL. When conceived right and executed well — across all parts of a company and all of its innovation and activities, including operations, supply chain, marketing, advertising and governance — purpose and profit do go hand in hand brilliantly, ‘gotcha’ moments become rare or non-existent, and the historical lack of trust is healed through a transformation in the relationship.

There is clearly a lot at stake, and the list of critical issues goes on and on. However, win-win change is not only possible but continues to emerge — and we in the SB community will continue to highlight it and nurture it in 2019 by supplying new, top-notch thought leadership, tools, case studies and partnership connections on all of these issues and many more.

Join us for answers, pointers, debates and world-class networking at our annual flagship conference, SB’19 Detroit, taking place June 3-6 at the Cobo Center in Detroit, MI.**