Peer Stewardship:  The Future of Sustainability

Peer Stewardship: The Future of Sustainability


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“As businesses and customers begin to thrive in economic sustainability, we look ahead to what it really boils down to: taking care of each other.”


Matthew Yeomans knows his way around stories. He’s dealt with some of the most outlandish claims, and battled through the “take it or leave it” corporate mentality like the rest of us. Now, he finds himself in a position all forward-thinking, customer-focused businesses and people strive to achieve: carrying forth a message of peer-to-peer stewardship.

“I used to be able to throw stuff at you, and you could take it or leave it. I could have a wall up,” Yeomans said at the Sustainable Brands (SB) ’15 San Diego conference. “That’s all changed with social media. As the company, as the brand, this is really scary, because it makes me accountable. I have to learn very quickly how I’m going to engage with customers.

“Social media has radically changed our way of interacting, and also the idea of the information superhighway. When you care about a certain issue, you can find someone anywhere in the world who also cares about that issue.”

Therein lies both the present and future of a truly sustainable life, business, and world: caring for each other as well as our bottom line. From TED Talks to conferences and seminars, strategists and consultants have spent the past few years sharing the power of storytelling in branding and connecting with customers. The importance of story has never been greater as companies move deeper into the brave new world of greater resource management, local sourcing, transparency, community involvement, waste control, education, and customer relationships in which customers are peers – and success is tied to the future of the world.

“These are not the ruthless people in business,” said Greg LaBar of the consulting firm Dix & Eaton. “These are the people who need to move more and more into driving the way we do business. I think that’s happening. It’s going to take us forward doing business in an ethical, sustainable, and creative way that benefits everyone.”

We, the customers, are no longer the taglines, afterthoughts, or merely end-users — we are partners. A perfect example of this new dynamic comes from Sprint’s Keanon Swan in his flowing description of the ever-innovative Sprint’s transition to wheat straw as a material source for paper packaging and billing:

“We talk about a road map, look at innovation, and take the long view,” he said. “What can we do to lighten the product and make it more efficient […] and simpler for the customer? Then we move to the next phase, to lighten the paper itself. We took it from 20-pound to 18-pound paper, thus reducing white space. Then we try to save the company money and experiment with the next thing, which led us to wheat straw. That leads us to the eco-envelope, the two-way re-usable envelope. And we keep asking, what can we do for the customer?”

Swan’s view of the customer as a center-seat partner is no accident. While businesses break out lofty (and impressive) numbers of gallons of water and raw materials saved, local jobs created, natural energy sources utilized, and other statistics, they are moving toward a far more important solution — treating their customers as if they are stakeholders. Because, they are. Haven’t they always been? After all, if I don’t buy your product, you are out of business. That’s a pretty important stakeholder.

Take Stella Artois’ collaboration with Water.org. One of the world’s largest breweries, Stella Artois’ most precious resource is water. And beer drinkers. To bolster their commitment to water conservation, they partnered with Water.org, hitching their brand to a globally conscious, cultured, and powerful organization involved with the ultimate peer-to-peer caretaking duty — protecting the one resource that assures our survival. As Water.org’s Julia LaGuardia put it, “Human impact is really important. We put a human face on the astounding facts and figures.”

Then look at what their joint program includes: a 360-degree, rich content approach with selective advertising, video, social porting, Instagram, the TVC shopping network in Mexico, a Tumbr immersive campaign, aggregated content, and photographs. They used this approach on World Water Day, which coincided with Super Bowl XLIX in February, and received 25,000 site visits within minutes after their two ads ran.

“We’ve focused on sharing journeys, promoting challenges, calls to action, and milestone updates for consumers to see our collective actions,” said David Butler of Stella Artois.

Among those highly impressed with the Stella Artois/Water.org approach is Alexandria Bennett of Source Intelligence. “I think one of the most important things is to get rid of much of the corporate vernacular. We need to communicate and convey our stories like writers and storytellers do. They’ve done that.”

Butler’s and Bennett’s words drive to the heart of what will sustain businesses, economies, and the planet — our understanding and central involvement. It also circles back to Yeomans’ concerns as author of the Social Media Sustainability Index: We’re all in it together, businesses of the world. Are you?

“Businesses cannot look at social media as a silo within a larger marketing plan,” he said. “Likewise, sustainability isn’t a tactic. It’s a fundamental business philosophy. To get past the other brands, I have to build community, I have to build trust, and I have to be creative. That is a really potent recipe for communicating sustainability.”

And for giving we, the people, the feeling that companies care about our lives and needs. If they don’t, we’re a click away from switching to a brand that does care. That is the heart of peer-to-peer stewardship.

By Robert Yehling


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