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Walking the Talk
From Theory to Practice:
Uncovering Synergies to Drive Tangible Impact

This week at SB Brand-Led Culture Change, layered discussions examined the complex potential of AI to optimize sustainability impact, as well as how to achieve internal alignment across departments with perceived different priorities.

Driving sustainability through AI: Success stories and strategies

Image credit: Google DeepMind

In today’s corporate landscape, sustainability has become a fundamental pillar of business strategy — and artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as the latest tool for advancing brand sustainability goals and business performance.

In this Wednesday morning breakout, Annie Longsworth — Partner, ESG Impact & Value Creation at Shelton Group — moderated a panel featuring Nadia James, Sustainability Marketing Program Manager at Google; Kiki Huckaby, Chief Impact Officer at MindSpark Learning; and Matt Bellio, Data Scientist & Advanced Analytics Consultant at IBM where they discussed the AI-driven strategies their brands have deployed to further sustainability and business goals.

Success stories

No matter the industry, AI has a place to make an impact — if used correctly and responsibly. Google, for example, uses AI to track and improve its environmental footprint and to help advertisers lessen their environmental impact. By utilizing AI through programs such as Product Studio and Ad Net Zero, Google has been able to help advertisers work more sustainably and efficiently: “AI helps us test out our assumptions, especially in sustainability where it tends to be more nuanced,” James said.

Understanding that sustainability and AI can be used as tools to upskill future workers, MindSpark arms educators with tools to give their students the skills needed to enter the workforce with a deep understanding of these technologies and their implications. IBM leverages data to drive impactful sustainability initiatives, such as its work with the Sund & Baelt Bridge project — demonstrating how AI-driven solutions enhance operational efficiency and contribute to environmental impact by reducing carbon footprints.

Insights and future opportunities

As these companies continue to push the boundaries of sustainability and AI integration, their initiatives foster collaboration, innovation, and ethical practices while paving the way for a more sustainability-driven workforce and business models. IBM recognizes the socio-technological challenges associated with AI, emphasizing the importance of trustworthiness and inclusivity in AI development. By adopting a holistic approach that encompasses diverse teams, transparent processes and ethical guidelines, Bellio said IBM ensures that AI solutions are fair, equitable and beneficial to all stakeholders. Huckaby said MindSpark focuses on ensuring that the user sees it as a tool, rather than a replacement, and educating the students on the biases that can come from relying on poorly trained AI. James added that Google understands AI’s role in helping consumers be more sustainable by understanding what can change their behavior through the collection of data and consumer insights.

By emphasizing trustworthiness, inclusivity and user benefit, these initiatives set a precedent for AI-driven solutions that prioritize fairness, equity and transparency — and could usher in a more sustainable and socially responsible era in business.


Driving internal alignment through cross-functional collaboration

Image credit: Google DeepMind

Persistent barriers to operationalizing sustainability strategy

In this Wednesday afternoon workshop, Tiana Ritchell — Principal at Daggerwing Group — led a conversation highlighting some of the challenges brands face when trying to operationalize sustainability strategy. According to a 2023 Harvard Business Review/Daggerwing Group study, only 1 in 4 companies among the 564 surveyed had widely operationalized their sustainability strategies — otherwise known as embedding it into the way they do business.

“The remaining 74 percent of companies are struggling to bring their sustainability strategies to life,” Ritchell said.

She went on to share five change levers for operationalizing sustainability — breaking sustainability out of its silos, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, rebalancing incentives and leader accountability, simplifying complexity, and articulating clear mindset and behavior shifts.

A change-management approach

For companies with a large portfolio of brands such as General Mills, collaborating across different teams and internal organizations can be challenging despite the company’s overarching commitment to sustainability. Joselynne Fynboh, the food giant’s Global Impact Enterprise Integration Lead, shared: “We started with a stakeholder-mapping process to determine some of the gaps. This helped us determine which brands or organizations we wanted to prioritize.” She also shared changes to General Mills’ overall governance structure and how various parts of the business are collaborating to align on sustainability strategy.

Several panelists shared that navigating the line between reporting and governance while simultaneously making progress on brand commitments can be challenging — especially given the latest regulatory changes in the EU and the US.

As Kayleen Alexson, Senior Director of ESG & Brand Strategy for Caribou Coffee Company, pointed out “There’s a tension between the resources allocated to reporting for ESG vs. actually making progress and investments in regenerative agriculture.”

Caribou Coffee published its second ESG report last year. When asked about the biggest shifts in its sustainability journey over the last couple years, Alexson said, “A few years ago we started engaging people who were passionate about sustainability across the organization. Now we are looking more systematically at certain teams and what needs to get done. We are putting more form and function to how we engage across the entire organization.”

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