Sustainability for Who: How North America’s Largest Corporate Sustainability Conference Renewed my Faith in Activism and Social Enterprise

I sit by the window of Lost and Found, a Vancouver coffee shop, staring out onto the stereotypically rainy streets. I’m here for Globe 2016, which bills itself as “North America’s largest and longest-running Conference and Exposition series dedicated to business innovation for the planet” (read: corporate sustainability) and its youth centred pre-conference Leading Change. The ethos this year is to build off of COP21 and lay the groundwork for our shift to a truly sustainable economy. The coffee shop sits in parallel to Hasting Urban Farm, a social venture that combines urban agriculture with job skills training for residents of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. The conference boasts some of the greatest minds the sustainability field has to offer. But I can’t help but wonder if the real answer isn’t just across the street.

Fast forward five days and now I sit in the two-tone blue chairs beside my Air Canada gate. The suit and tie of the last week replaced by an aging activism T-shirt. The irony of flying to an environmental conference is not lost on me, but then again, that does seem to be the mantra of corporate sustainability: do not let perfect be the enemy of the good. For the past four days, I’ve listened to the stories of multinational’s best practices, of the future according to academics and “thought leaders,” of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs all working towards clean capitalism. The people on the panels and on the convention centre floor hold the power to set Canada and the world on a path towards zero carbon, and I do not question their passion or commitment to that goal. And yet, as I look in my small light brown notepad and read the hastily scribbled notes, it’s the small farm that leaves me with the most hope.

Trudeau and the Elephants

The line to hear our Prime Minister’s conference-opening remarks stretched hundreds of feet down the convention centre hallway only to curl back in on itself and cover the opposing wall as well. We filtered into the ambiance of celestial chorales, which only subsided when the conference organizers took the stage to introduce Trudeau himself. There is no question that having the Prime Minister open a sustainability conference is an incredibly optimistic sign for the climate. However, from the moment he uttered the now well worn line that pipelines could help pay for the energy transition, it became clear that in the long line stood some hefty elephants, which now sat somewhere in this large exhibition hall. For the next four days the term “energy transition” would be more popular than the incredible food trucks that were lined up outside the convention centre, but somehow it never meant a loss of revenue for oil and gas (Amory Lovins’ spectacular breakdown of the future of the oil economy notwithstanding). It seemed that within these walls everyone could be winners, and in a world that is fast approaching its carbon budget and a global market as competitive as ever, this viewpoint only serves to dim the conversation and slow the rate of innovation.

Brand and Sustainability in the age of Transparency

The elephants didn’t get lost at lunch. I would later explain to a friend that to get the most out of some of the talks, you needed to agree to be in the same world as the presenter. This was especially important when the main stage hosted its marketing panel, which opened with one of the presenters stating that marketing now is more difficult than it was twenty or thirty years ago because now, empowered by the internet, the consumer can know when you are lying. A truism to be sure, but perhaps one that should not have been cast out in such a flippant manner. The age of transparency is important because it empowers consumers by bringing into the light what corporations would like to remain behind a curtain. Yet, for the nearly two hour duration of the panel, the invisible power structures that remain firmly entrenched kept the representative of Nestle Water North from experiencing even a whiff of concern about their incredibly dubious relationship with earth’s most precious resource. Change requires us to look directly and honestly at the world and the power relations that shape it.

Getting up in Harvard’s Business

The morning of the second day of the conference, I found myself once again filing into the large exhibition hall. The line was shorter, but for many who were there this keynote was far more anticipated than yesterday’s. Michael Porter is a near deity in marketing and business circles but it was another member of the morning panel who said something truly novel for the conference. “Activists created the space to bring oil and governments to the table.” With that phrase, Tzeporah Berman cut through what had become the deafening silence on the role activism has played in pushing corporations to the point where they now need Vice Presidents of Sustainability. Bureaucracy never leads. This doesn’t change whether it’s within business or government. The establishment must be pushed. Those within the sustainability department of large corporations understand this, because they themselves are the change agents. Yet, activism still feels like a dirty word here. The invisible power is scared of disruption, but it’s a component of all real change and to ignore this reality is only to limit your ability to adapt.

The Justice Jam

“But…is that their job?” It’s an honest question, one it seems that none of us have an answer for. There are ten of us who sit around the circular table, trying to work our way through the question of whether corporate sustainability can shift itself towards a justice-first lens. If we are not putting the lives of those most impacted by climate change and environmental racism first, all of our solutions will come with the same blinders that created our problems in the first place. I’m convinced this is necessary for a truly successful shift towards a sustainable future. But here we remain, struggling to even define the problem. Make the scope too small and you are left with a mandatory corporate seminar on environmental justice. Make the scope too big and suddenly you’re tasked with rebuilding a society without capital. The question pivots between what we have the capacity to do now and what might actually solve our underlying issues. A microcosm of the ongoing struggle within corporate sustainability and even environmentalism itself. Business has the capacity. Activism has the answers.

I’ve boarded now, sitting in my aisle seat. Am I being too hard on corporate sustainability? I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that it’s desperately needed. The capacity to do good within these major companies is as staggering as the work is difficult.

In the session on ‘Brand and Sustainability’ the Nestle representative spoke to the importance of authenticity in this shifting age of consumerism. In another panel Amory Lovins spoke of the incoming market shift and how “oil companies are more at risk to market competition than they are to climate regulation.” And in the small urban farm I see the underpinnings of a society and a business model that takes justice seriously.

The solution sits in no individual’s hands, but rather, in the collective achievements of billions of hands, all working together towards these broad ideals. The plane pulls forward along the tarmac, I see Vancouver’s mountains illuminated in the sun. It’s the first blue sky I’ve seen since I landed.

Like what you read? Give Stefan Hostetter a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.