Sustainable Brands 2014: What *If* We Could Change the World?

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When KoAnn Skrzyniarz opened this year’s Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego, she passionately encouraged the more than 2,000 attendees to ask themselves an endless lot of “What if…?” questions. Why? So it would spark everyone’s imagination and audacity to bring up the much-needed debate around initiatives that might have the potential to create a more sustainable economy and society. 

The conference did exactly that. Under the theme “Reimagine. Redesign. Regenerate” the gathered community of change-makers explored how purpose-driven brands increasingly succeed in the marketplace by enabling a more sustainable future for all of us. 

But beyond all the optimism that stems from imagining a changed world, KoAnn also reminded everyone in San Diego that asking the bold questions can just be the beginning—a starting point and gateway. And she is right. What is really needed is taking collective action that turns “What if…?” into “Well done…!”[more]

The conference seemed to provide the right feeding ground for such an endeavor, with a speaker list that read like a “Who’s Who” of big brand names. Nissan, BASF, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Patagonia, Microsoft, SAP, Lego, AT&T, Walmart, Levis, Nestle, 3M, Unilever, Nike, Target, and many more. What better platform could there be than using the sphere of influence of some of the world’s biggest brands to scale sustainable behavior change?

Accordingly, the conference yielded many conversations around a “Tribe Culture”—an organic system in which the behavior changes of a few inspire and trigger the behavior changes of many; a system in which more sustainable behaviors spread from one person to another, until we reach a tipping point that marks systematic change. 

The thought is not new. But what is new is the realization of big brands that they actually can—and should—be at the forefront of this movement, not only by educating and leading their customers, but also their own employees.

Patagonia, the purpose-driven apparel company that is at the forefront of sustainable business practices, spoke about a successful campaign in which they encourage customers to repair a 10-year-old outdoor jacket instead of purchasing a new one. At the same time, the brand encourages employees to take a two-month long, fully paid internship at an environmental non-profit of their choice to “walk the talk.”

That is how brands step up and lead the charge on behavior change. And this is increasingly becoming a mandatory table stake, as activists become more empowered through social media to enforce behavior change in brands that don’t proactively do so themselves. It is not about staying ahead anymore—now it is about not being left behind!

Take the example of the 17-year-old teenager from Mississippi who recently ran petitions on the online platform Change.org to have both Coca Cola and Pepsi bend to the will of the masses and remove brominated vegetable oil, a controversial ingredient, from its products. After bringing the beverage giants to its knees, the young activist said, “It’s really good to know that companies, especially big companies, are listening to consumers.”

The pressure and the responsibility that is put on big brands are huge. But so are the opportunities to tab into a new emerging consumer segment for which purpose-driven products and services are highly relevant. One of the key challenges here lies within marketers who still seem to struggle with an important question: “How can we make the more sustainable product choice look like the better and sexier one?”

But there is hope: the much talked about electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla has figured out how to make sustainability sexy, as has Nest, the now Google-owned smart home tech startup.

We still have a long way to go until we reach the green(er) world we’d all love to live in. But, hey—we should not stop asking ourselves: “What if… tomorrow’s world was shaped by brands that take ‘sustainability’ from a movement to a lifestyle?” And then act on it.

 

• brandchannel is a proud media partner of Sustainable Brands 2014. Dominik Prinz is director for strategy for Interbrand New York. Follow him on Twitter: @DomPrinz

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