Green New World or Business as Usual?

By Doug Studer, Galvanizer, Lifelong Learner, Thoreauvian Naturalist

Deskey and BluEarth CEO  

         Brands by nature seek to deliver “the good life” to consumers, and today that means more than simply delivering a delightful product. Competitive brands need to speak to consumers’ evolving values and vision of “the good life,” one that now includes greater connections to the planet and people. No matter the category, brands need to make their products inherently more sustainable, step up the visibility of their sustainability programs, and lead the way so it’s simpler for consumers in the mainstream to choose products that help them do the right thing and live well.

This was the key message at Sustainable Brands’ 2019 conference in Detroit. Capping a three-year series called Defining, Designing and Delivering the Good Life, this year’s conference marked a notable shift in messaging from learning how consumers define “the good life” in the age of conscious consumerism to understanding what brands must do to help deliver it. 

We learned early on that consumers define the good life as “balanced simplicity” centered on deep connections to people, community, and the environment rather than on material wealth and consumption. What’s more, 80% of consumers are loyal to brands that give them opportunities to “give back,” and they’re looking to brands to create new pathways for giving. Many of this year’s presentations focused on just that — ways brands can be better leaders on this sustainability journey, starting at the top.

Leith Sharp from Harvard offered three steps for leaders to take action and grow a culture of sustainability in their organizations: (1) Learn how to “surf the squiggle.” There is no straight line from A to B, so ride the ups and downs and keep moving. (2) Create the right vibe. Help people feel psychologically safe, and balance accountability with motivation. (3) Find people with a common purpose. Build your tribe. 

Author Jonah Sachs advised us to begin practicing “unsafe thinking.” He said don’t avoid challenges and challengers, but embrace them! Fuel creativity by moving toward anxiety, not away from it. That’s where discovery and invention live.

Marc Pritchard of P&G and KoAnn Skrzyniarz, Sustainable Brands founder, announced the Brands for Good initiative. Nearly 20 brands have signed on to help consumers make better choices, to give them simple ways to do the right thing, and to close the gap between the 30% of consumers who actually live their sustainability ethos and the 65% who say they want to but don’t always see the path forward. The speakers went on to report that products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6% faster than conventional products and 3.3% faster than the rest of the market.

And there it is — a reason for brands to care. There is money to be made by doing good. So is this brand activism or really just another flavor of corporate greed? Or is it somewhere in between? The bigger question may be, do we care?

This is not new. Twenty-six years ago in his bestseller The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken told us that “business will need to integrate economic, biologic, and human systems to create a sustainable method of commerce…a new code of conduct for corporate life that integrates social, ethical, and environmental principles.” Ecology has to be woven into the fabric of our economy.

There are brands willing to be on the leading edge of this fight. REI with its Opt Outside program on Black Friday is one example. Danone’s vision of One Planet, One Health is leading the shift away from powerful people making the decisions to people-powered brands with a mission. There are many companies doing well by doing good, and now with brands like P&G, Target, PepsiCo, Nestle, Visa, National Geographic and SC Johnson joining the lead, I have hope.

It may have taken almost 30 years for the ideas to stick, but perhaps now, with more brands joining the fight for good, we can see a world without single-use plastic. Perhaps we will see a world where the only things in the oceans are living and the only thing in landfills is land. It will take commitment and hope, but we see a world where the good life is all of us working together to save the only planet we have.

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