What If The Leading Brands Of The Future Succeeded By Creating More Value For Society? 

Asking “What If…?” was a common question underlying all of the panel discussions and presentations that took place during last week’s Sustainable Brands conference, recognizing the need to drive more innovative thinking, and supporting the themes of “Reimagine,” “Redesign,” and “Regenerate” that were broken out over three days in San Diego, CA. Some people may argue that the trend toward for-profit businesses pivoting to become more socially and environmentally responsible is a niche movement with limited engagement, but the data proves otherwise.

Recent research reveals 72% of S&P 500 companies report on environmental and social performance indicators, and two-thirds of mid-sized companies are either establishing or enhancing their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Additionally, 84% of consumers say that greater visibility into a company’s sustainability efforts increases their trust, and business spending on sustainability initiatives is projected to hit $60 billion by the end of 2014. Why? It makes practical sense — pursuing sustainability increases efficiencies, reduces costs, increases consumer loyalty, mitigates risks associated with increased regulation, and drives innovation. Oh, and it creates a positive return on investment (ROI). An example can be found in Unilever’s sustainability program, which has saved the company $395M since 2008. Unilever’s Vice President of Sustainable Living and Corporate Communications, Jonathan Atwood, opened his presentation by saying, “Brands with a purpose grow faster.” It was a matter-of-fact statement during an overview of “Project Sunlight,” an initiative that’s having an irrefutably positive impact — on their customers, and their bottom line.

One of the most exciting announcements came from Jason Saul of Mission Measurement who introduced the Social Value Index, which is kind of like Morningstar for the social sector. It quantifies the dollar value gain from social and environmental impact initiatives, identifying key drivers (as deemed by consumers), and segmented by industry sector. This syndicated research will allow big brands to see, possibly for the first time ever, what the real ROI is of their CSR programs, and how they stack up against their peers. This won’t only help those companies already pursuing sustainability to further increase their ROI, but will also broaden engagement by providing the data needed to convert those still watching from the sidelines, unconvinced that there’s a financial benefit to social and environmental initiatives.

Another data-focused presenter was Michael Smith, who spoke about how Nielsen is leveraging neuroscience to better gauge the underlying impact that knowledge of a company’s sustainability efforts has on various segments of the consumer population. And Quid is a fast-growing San Francisco based startup that’s helping clients makes sense of big data through advanced visual mapping and analytical tools. Perhaps Darren Beck, Head of Corporate Responsibility at Sprint, explained the clear hunger for hard data best, saying, “Innovation is a door opener (in this space), but you’ve got to be able to prove the business case.” And when discussing the importance of impact measurement, Natasha Deganello of Micro-Documentaries joked, “Post and pray is not a good social media strategy.”

Other common themes that emerged included the need to shift the language being used away from a goal of “less bad” and towards a clear story of desired outcomes, painting a picture that we can then all work to create. Specific examples included changing “eco-efficiency” to “eco-effectiveness” and replacing the word “sustainable” with “net positive.” There was also consistent effort to avoid using the word “consumer” given that it’s rooted in the word “consume,” which is defined by using up resources — something we Americans are a bit too good at. One speaker suggested we call consumers “allies,” which struck me as a bit cringe-worthy, but I do understand the argument and agree an evolution is needed to more accurately reflect what has undoubtedly become a less hierarchical and more egalitarian, relationship-based economy. Call it the sharing economy, the collaborative economy, or the maker movement, but several speakers hit on the fact that, more and more, people are going to each other for access to the goods and services they need, and big companies need to adapt. Figuring out just how to adapt to this shift can be overwhelming, which is why Jeremiah Owyang created Crowd Companies, a membership-based council that helps key stakeholders working within companies learn about how to better engage in this movement.

I was happy to see the topic of mindfulness show up, with Rich Fernandez of Search Inside Yourself — Google’s mindfulness based emotional intelligence program — starting us off each day with a question to consider, an intention to set, or a visualization exercise. Jo Confino, Executive Director of The Guardian, passionately asked attendees to consider, “How can we ask others to change if we’re unwilling to first consider changing ourselves?” Indeed, change starts from within, and realizing our own behavior is far from perfect will likely ease some of the righteousness that currently exists within the “do good” community, and help us to more easily find common ground with others, and steer the ship in a direction that’s mutually beneficial. “What is most alive for you, and how can that serve the greater good?” asked Fernandez. And Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company, suggested that, “If you really live your purpose, it will become a filter for all decision making.” That filter is exactly what Eileen Howard Boone, SVP of Corporate Communications and Community Relations at CVS Caremark, said resulted in the company’s ($2 billion/year) decision to stop selling cigarettes.

Social and environmental problems are inherently complex, which likely explains why every speaker mentioned the cross-sector partnerships they’ve created — bridging the gap between government, business, and customers as a way to increase collaboration, identify best practices, and crowdsource solutions. The Sustainable Brands conferences are themselves a testament to this desire for increased collaboration, growing from just 200 attendees at their first conference in 2006 to reaching over 5,000 attendees coming from all over the world by 2014, and as many as 1 million unique visitors per year to their web and social media platforms. Additionally, Sustainable Brands conferences are now being held in London, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur with Barcelona and Bangkok coming next year — and all of that growth has been driven by inbound requests. Some of this is due to the energy that founder and CEO KoAnn Skrzyniarz brings. “We think of ourselves as a community, not a conference,” said Skrzyniarz during the event’s opening plenary, setting a positive tone for the week ahead, and creating an atmosphere of trust.

Trust was another theme, with Jerry Michalski of REX arguing its financial practicality, saying, “Trust is cheaper than control, and the outcomes are better.” Attendees were asked to consider whether we’re stalking our customers or serving them, which won some laughs, but is an important filter when building trust, and considering long-term customer retention. Chris Arnold, Communications Director at Chipotle, talked about how they’ve chosen a strategy of engaging people through entertainment, purposely avoiding overt brand integration (watch this for an example). Andrew Savitz, a thought leader and consultant focused on the intersection of sustainability and human resources, pointedly said, “CSR without HR is just PR.” Similarly focused on creating change from within organizations, Christine Bader, author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist, said, “In order to be a good intrapreneur, your job is not to evangelize or police.” She spoke to the importance of really listening, and then using language that resonates with people on a personal level.

The conference ended with attendees sharing their takeaways with the entire group, making clear I wasn’t the only one walking away feeling equally informed, and inspired. But, as any conference goer knows, it can be difficult in the days following these kind of events to know exactly how to put all of the new information gathered into action. Looking through my notes the next morning I notice a quote I’d scrawled down from Jonathan Atwood of Unilever, the simplicity of which provides some relief, and clarity: “What do you really care about? Lets start there.”