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Walking the Talk
Regenerating Local:
Starting Small to Build Exponential Shared Value

This week at SB’23 San Diego, over 1K sustainability practitioners have converged to share insights, tools, inspiration and collaboration opportunities aimed at building a regenerative future for all. Here, our opening-night keynotes highlight the first of many examples this week of businesses creating benefits on the ground.

SB’23 San Diego officially kicked off Monday night with over 1K sustainability, communications and brand practitioners convened as part of an ever-growing community to share inspiration and opportunities for collaboration. Our global human community was a key focal point of the opening-night plenary in the context of this year’s theme, Regenerating Local.

Sandy Skees

Sandy Skees, Global Lead of Purpose & Impact at Porter Novelli and Chair of Sustainable Brands®’ (SB) Advisory Board, set the stage by exploring the state of global sustainability. She said that ongoing, increasing global challenges — both macro and micro — are inextricably linked, and global systems exist at both local and human level. But she imparted optimism — and her belief that the next phase is the awakening of our community responsibility — and encouraged attendees to leverage our individual gifts to create the impacts we want to see.

Regenerating local

Mike Dupee

SB COO Mike Dupee kicked off the main-stage program by sharing his observations on the state of our collective pursuit of a just and regenerative future. He acknowledged the reality of the difficult year and anguish we all are experiencing in the face of a polycrisis (war, violence, human rights violations, climate crisis, ecosystem, economic uncertainty), but encouraged attendees to have the courage to take on these challenges head on — to overcome world traumas and drive transformative change.

Dupree encouraged attendees to bottle up the energy and gravitation of the inclusive Sustainable Brands community this week by being present, and carrying the energy afterward and staying connected.

Bridging regeneration and positive local impact

SB founder & CEO KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz was then joined by John Fullerton, regenerative economics architect & founder of the Capital Institute; and Alfa Demmellash, CEO & co-founder of Rising Tide Capital, for a conversation unpacking the importance of this year’s theme in the context of the moment as businesses, societies and human beings. Skrzyniarz stated that one of the thorny issues is regenerative ecosystems — particularly, the challenge to secure supply chains in a world of increasing disruption. She posited that regenerative ecosystems will enable us to thrive — and we need to activate locally between neighbors, ourselves and natural world.

The discussion focused on key relationships between regeneration and positive local impact, as well as their joint effects on the larger quest toward systemic resilience, health and thriving. When asked “what does regeneration, especially regenerative business, mean to you?,” Demmellash responded that regeneration relates to the broader awareness of conditions in which businesses operate, which the sustainability movement has understood — but that we need to extend our circle of concern beyond “sustainability” and bridge our influence to address the challenging situations in which we find ourselves. To Fullerton, regeneration is “the process of how life works,” which can be studied in such fields as physics and ecology. He asserted that we need to get serious about understanding how life works: the first step is to get clear on non-negotiable principles without imposing individual values. He shared that regenerative business is a living system, and that we learn how to create conditions that unlock untapped potential for future prosperity.

As to why this is relevant for multinational companies, Demmellash said that while brands are thought of first, a brand is more than a product or business: It’s a core identity and can attract value even if a product shifts or evolves. The longevity of business potential is tied to the brand, and the lifeblood of a vision within an enterprise consists of human efforts. Demmellash concluded that we need to tie brand-building to purpose, even on a local level.

Building on this idea, Fullerton added that local communities are the cellular level of a healthy business. Businesses serve as an “oak tree” in a community and rely on the ecosystems in which they live/operate. This interdependence relies on sustainability as an outcome. He asserted that to improve resilience, for example, businesses need to shore up their supply chains as well as empowering local customers via feedback loop.

The conversation turned to frameworks as a practical tool. Demmellash raised that human interdependency and resilience were laid bare during the pandemic — especially during the early days, when so much of the economy was heavily supported by essential workers. In her work, patterns of forced migration — particularly due to climate-fueled disasters, war, economic hardship, etc — led to the creation and embodiment of a framework that aligns with existing migrations. There are positive dimensions/outcomes [to this migration] in that there are increasing rates of startups by female and minority entrepreneurs: “They are lighting up new lanterns of purpose in the ‘Land of Purpose,’” she exclaimed.

Others are in the “Land of Abandonment” caused by economic collapse and war, where people are disconnected from purpose and meaningful livelihoods; she asserted that conventional approaches to capital drive the “Land of Disconnection.” Mapping out migration and applying new approaches to dispersing capital can shift people to the “Land of Purpose.” And even better, it through cross-sector collaboration, we all can migrate to the “Land of Flourishing.”

Boosting local equity, supporting diverse voices for change, and empowering the next generation

Aisha Glover

Next, Aisha Glover — VP of Urban Innovation at Audible — shared how the Amazon-owned audiobook and podcast service has helped fuel the local economy and build a career pipeline for youth in its headquarter city of Newark, NJ, through its Future Leaders program.

To help catalyze Audible’s own business growth while revitalizing the local community, the company was determined to set a standard beyond what it does. In service to the local economy, Audible made direct community investments — such as incentivizing employees to move to Newark to increase the company’s economic footprint in the city. In 2020, Audible launched Newark Working Kitchens to help support the restaurant industry. Meals distributed in the early days of the pandemic helped sustain 40 local restaurants.

Building on that, Audible then launched Newark Artist Collaboration. The company identified 20 local artists to work on public art installations to illustrate the power and amplification of voices — with a particular focus on women founders and founders of color in the artist community.

Glover left the audience with this: “Who you are as a company is as much as what you provide.”

Turning ESG governance into competitive advantage

Murat Sönmez and Pamela Gill Alabaster

As demands for corporate sustainability and ESG disclosures continue to grow, companies may feel like they need to collect and share information about everything, from everywhere, all at once. However, those companies most capable of efficiently collecting detailed sustainability data unlock new opportunities, harnessing these insights to devise actionable strategies and achieve sustainable outcomes.

Pamela Gill Alabaster, Global Head of ESG & Sustainability at Kenvue (fka Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health); and Murat Sönmez, co-founder & CEO of Pulsora, closed out the opening-night session by exploring how businesses can amplify their sustainability footprint both locally and globally — going beyond mere compliance to driving real change. With mounting regulatory pressure around the world, impact reporting is becoming mandatory. And local regulation will have global impact — case in point: California’s new climate-disclosure legislation.

As Gill Alabaster pointed out, it’s not just regulators asking for ESG data: ESG rating entities such as CDP and S&P are inquiring; and more and more corporate players are requiring suppliers to report data and performance against goals/metrics. She asserted that companies need to publicly share other “S” and “G” activities — DEI, human-capital management, brand-purpose programs — to demonstrate broader initiatives as part of a larger ecosystem. Sönmez added that early-career professionals want to work at companies that are leaning in.

Gill Alabaster talked about how mandatory reporting may make companies more timid on disclosure. With respect to the US market, she expects companies may report the minimum mandatories — though that level of disclosure will not “get credit” in the realm of public opinion. To balance ESG accounting and sustainability, more than one organizational function must now drive reporting, she said — adding that “we need to think end to end throughout value chain.”