What if We Could Reimagine, Redesign and Regenerate?

This question was the theme of Sustainable Brands ’14, hosted in San Diego last week. Fenton’s Sustainability and CSR team attended to moderate  panels on human capital, forced labor and trafficking, and to exhibit in the Activation Hub.

From the pre-conference workshops on context-based sustainability (PwC) and zero deforestation (Rainforest Alliance) to a final session on traceability (Starbucks), companies, NGOs and advisors shared their stories and progress on critical environmental issues. What set this year’s gathering apart from those past was a sense of urgency—companies feel the need to work faster on climate change, resource depletion and the real impacts of business on humanity.

According to Andrew Winston, whose book The Big Pivot launched at the conference, “I really believe that we are past the denial phase. Just like the stages of grief, now we are beginning to negotiate.” Rick Ridgeway from Patagonia echoed Winston’s cautious optimism with a prediction that taxes on carbon emissions could become a reality in the next election cycle. “My conversations with business leaders have been very encouraging,” he said. Whether or not folks find these statements believable, the science shows that time is of the essence to make rapid changes in how we do business.

As attendees discussed how to advance sustainability issues, three themes emerged throughout the week:

REIMAGINE DATA: Attendees discussed how goals and programs must be linked back to measurable impacts. Whether it’s Levi’s designing apparel, DESSO manufacturing carpet, BASF creating chemicals or Unilever using energy—companies are reporting on programs that are tied to science-based reduction targets. It was clear that companies are grappling with measurement standards. They aren’t consistent, nor are they pervasive. Yet, there was a refreshing frankness to the discussion—goals must be tied to significant reductions or tangible human impacts. Reducing water use year over year, for example, is meaningless unless it is measured within the context of existing aquifer water levels or annual rainfall.

REDESIGN TOGETHER: The hallmark of many successful case studies presented was collaboration. In order to achieve a whole system solution, disparate partners must work side-by-side. This shared responsibility approach was highlighted during Fenton’s panel discussion on businesses and forced labor. Companies like BASF are beginning to assess, track, and eliminate forced labor from their supply chain using tracking software from NGOs like PRé and Verité. Aiding this work are social innovators like Labor Voices who have developed a means for workers across the globe to text or call anonymously to report abuse or unsafe working conditions.

REGENERATING SUSTAINABILITY: The most spirited discussions were about the need for mindfulness—connecting our inner and outer worlds. Jo Confino, executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business shared his view, “Changing the world starts with transforming ourselves. There’s something around being really honest with ourselves.” This means acknowledging the enormity of the task at hand and how we negotiate the trade-offs we make in both our personal and professional efforts to create a thriving future. Mindfulness can inform human-centered design and how companies measure the true and lasting impacts of social programs. Several experts, including Renee Lertzman, an expert in behavioral psychology and environment, believe that how we talk about and solve for the challenges inherent in climate change must include an understanding of the psycho-social realities that are blocking us from truly grasping or engaging on the issue. Only then can we create policies, programs and campaigns that authentically engage all of us.

From practical solutions for employee engagement to challenging conversations on what companies can do to be restorative rather than “less bad,” the Sustainable Brands conference provided a week of conversation and collaboration for over 2,500 attendees that are committed to a thriving future for all.