Walking the Talk
Leading Brands Share Mix of Success Stories, Cautionary Tales at SB’21 Madrid

While showcasing brands leading the charge toward sustainability — including Interface and Tony’s Chocolonely — SB’21 Madrid gave equal weight to just how much work we have left to do: Only 13% of companies can accurately deem themselves “sustainable.”

Sustainable Brands Madrid, which took place June 17, truly was a game of two halves. The first half of the three-hour online event treated attendees to a selection of positive stories — companies that are progressing well on their journey towards net zero and beyond, using the power of brand to bring customers along for the ride.

The second half offered a more cautionary tale, highlighting just how few companies can rightly claim to be ‘sustainable.’ It turns out there is still plenty of work to do; and as Marta Blanco Quesada, President of CEOE Internacional, reinforced in her opening remarks, “The biggest risk for the world is if brands fail to positively address the environmental and social challenges presented by the pandemic — and they don’t build back better.”

One company determined not to make that mistake is Interface — the US-based carpet and flooring manufacturer that first recognised the need to make a positive contribution to the planet back in the early 1990s. A 27-year veteran of the business, Nigel Stansfield is the company’s President for all regions outside of the US. Not only is he responsible for the company’s strategy but also its so-called climate take-back commitment — a promise to help restore the planet. If the company’s previous sustainability strategy centred on doing less bad, this is the next step: to do more good — to be regenerative and to reverse the damage causing by climate change.

By 2040, Interface will be a carbon-negative business, Stansfield said. “It’s about not seeing carbon as the enemy, but rather as a fundamental building block in our products.” Its Embodied Beauty collection of carpet tiles was a world first for carbon-negative products, from cradle to gate – and these are set to be the norm in the years to come. That’s because customers are demanding products with a lower carbon footprint, according to Stansfield. Interface uses “ecometrics” to support customers on their journey towards sustainability — helping to quantify the waste, emissions and carbon impact of purchasing its carpet products. To refurbish a 25,000-square-metre office space using Interface carbon-negative carpet tiles prevents 7.5 metric tonnes of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere — the same as the carbon sequestered by 10 acres of forest a year.

Stansfield signed off by stating how proud he is at what his company has achieved. “Not many people leave university and want to work for a carpet business. But they do want to work for a purpose-driven business like Interface,” he said, adding that he feels saddened “that there are not more organizations like us taking a leadership position.”

He will have been buoyed by the next business invited to share its story. The Dutch chocolate company Tony’s Chocolonely was established in 2005. It has since enjoyed rapid growth, thanks to building an ethical supply base, something its customers have really bought into, according to the company’s Chief Evangelist, Ynzo van Zanten. “It’s about having radical transparency. We have direct relationships with seven cooperatives in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and we’re building long-term relationships with farmers — something hardly any chocolate companies do,” he said.

Moderating the session, Quiero’s Sandra Pina posed the question: Could Tony’s, single-handedly, lead a global movement that changes the entire cocoa supply system? Van Zanten’s simple answer: “Yes,” pointing to the huge traction the business has had in a relatively short amount of time. “The impact we are having is much bigger than the amount of beans we purchase. We aim to change the market — with others taking full responsibility for helping farmers stand strong in the value chain.”

Forum for the Future CEO Sally Uren was also on hand to passionately explain the value of developing sustainable supply chains that not only focus on protecting the environment, but in raising the standard of living for farming communities. She highlighted the findings of Forum’s Cotton 2040 project — a multistakeholder initiative bringing together brands, processors, farmers and standards bodies. It explored new business models that might be leveraged by the cotton sector — including developing direct-trade models, predicating finance flows based on maintaining biodiversity on farms, and helping farmers fund a transition to organic farming practices. “There are lots of different models out there that could be part of a regenerative supply chain,” Uren said. “We need to validate them and scale them.”

Companies like Tony’s need to show that it is commercially viable to develop and support an ethical supply chain. But it also requires a mindset shift, van Zanten added. “Commercial success should not be the end goal, rather a means to a goal and purpose. Brands need to realise that it’s not about them. It’s about their consumers; make them your movement maker, rather than pointing at yourselves.”

To wrap up the event, it fell on Dimitar Vlahov, Sustainable Brands’ Director of Knowledge and Insights, to give the audience a reality check. He shared the latest SB research carried out among 100 companies. It asked each to self-assess their progress towards becoming a ‘sustainable brand’ against five critical dimensions: Purpose; brand influence; regenerative operations; net positive products and services; and transparency and proactive governance. It is an orientation tool known as the SB Brand Transformation Roadmap, created by SB’s global advisory board. Each dimension has five levels — Level 1 for those at the start of their journey; Level 5 for those leading the way, such as Interface or Patagonia.

The results show that, across all dimensions, very few companies are at Level 5. In fact, the vast majority claim to be at Level 1 or 2. For example, when it comes to leveraging the power of brand influence for sustainability, 74 percent of companies are at Level 1 or 2, and only 13 percent deem themselves to have reached Level 5.

“Often, a company’s purpose is not specific or inspiring enough,” Vlahov said. “Then, it’s not being integrated well enough into the company or activated outside with external stakeholders.”

The final word was reserved for brand strategist and author Andrew Winston — who is about to publish a new book co-written with ex-Unilever CEO Paul Polman. He described SB’s Level 5 as a “north star; nobody is really at Level 5 yet. That’s because we don’t have the systems in place to support it.”

However, if companies are to reach for the stars, they need to ask themselves some serious questions, he added.

“It means rethinking your business — to stop serving shareholders and to serve the world instead. It’s a question for CEOs: Do you understand the issues in the world? And how much do you care? If you don’t care, you won’t go very far on this journey.”

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