Sustainable Brands’ annual San Diego conference moved from sharing success stories to implanting practices for our new economy — and environment
While Southern California baked in the sun, leaching what little water remained during a drought considered the worst in 500 years, everyone from basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, 300 exhibitors, and more than 2,000 leaders, to innovators and drivers of our business future packed into Paradise Point in San Diego to buckle up for the long haul.
In this case, ‘the long haul’ involves the products we will buy and way we will do business during a far different economic, climatic, and technological time than anything the baby boomers or Gen X knew when they were building businesses in their 20s and 30s. These changes are why much of Sustainable Brands (SB) ’15 San Diego conference focused on repositioning younger entrepreneurs and sustainability experts not as followers of a well-worn path, but creators of something entirely new. Also, of blurring the focus on age itself.
“For a long time, we’ve been talking about generations in terms of age groups,” said Raphael Bemporad, co-founder of BBMG. “Generations are shaped by events and experiences that define who we are and help us understand the issues and world around us. This particular generation — the one that will lead us through this very difficult time and into a more sustainable world — connects various ages and the issues. They connect the right thing to do with the cool thing to do.”
Bemporad makes a strong point: Right now, talking and walking sustainability is cool. However, it’s also what will keep us viable as a culture and an economy. “We’re at the intersection of relevance and resiliency right now,” he said. “This is where brands of the 21st century will succeed. You can’t separate these two anymore.”
This mantra was borne out in various shapes and forms during four days of beachfront plenaries, keynotes, seminars, parties, and hallway discussions. A trio of city planners broke down how the City of Phoenix is combining state-of-the-art LED lighting (cool, resilient) and better negotiating with solar and utility companies (necessity) to create one of the nation’s most energy-efficient municipal power grids (relevance). Green Advantage, a consultancy firm, touted how MGM resorts is converting 1.3 million lights to LED, saving more than 20 million gallons of water per year, and recycling more than 56,000 tons of waste annually — a perfect mixture of present relevance leading to future resiliency.
Even the Boy Scouts of America, the denizen of conservation-minded youth organizations, has jumped into the relevance/resiliency discussion. The BSA awards 22 million outdoor recreation merit badges and 11 million natural sciences merit badges per year. Both are now required to attain the coveted Eagle Scout status, as well as community service projects; scouts perform 17 million hours of such service each year.
“We’ve been practicing conservation and sustainability and instilling those values in our scouts for a hundred years,” a BSA spokesman said. “It’s nice to see that these kids can move out of scouts and into something where they already have a lot of training, when you think about it.”
Since we were in San Diego, at the heart of a drought that has taxed Californians to the tune of mandatory 25% water rationing and caused more than 3 million acres to burn — in 2015 alone — water was on everyone’s minds. Alliances, consultancy groups and companies touted their water savings, some of which were stunning. Organizations like Water.org discussed specific projects and alliances they’ve formed, and how they’re breaking out their stories, successes, and messages on social media. Even Sustainable Brands jumped into the act, allowing signs to be planted outside the conference center to show the other coastal water issue — rising seawater levels and flood lines, should the global meltdown continue at its same terrifying rate.In the trenches and various workshops, the talk wasn’t about sharing stories or touting lofty statistics, but to identify and deploy specific solutions now.
“I’m noticing that we’re moving into much more of an execution phase,” said Rob Zimmerman of Kohler, the multi-billion dollar manufacturer of household fixtures and commodes, all centered on water flow. “How are we paying closer attention to specifics? With Kohler, we focus on the fact that there are 50 states and 50 different water issues — the drought in California and the west, floods in Florida, Texas, and parts of the South, all the snow in New England, runoff from dairies and farms in Wisconsin and Midwestern states, lake pollution issues in the Great Lakes states, concerns over fracking seepage … When we can provide solutions to specific environmental or community situations, then we’re driving to the potential of a lasting, sustainable solution, in my opinion.”
Greg LaBar, the managing director of Cleveland-based Dixon & Eaton, a corporate communications and consultancy firm, agrees. “That’s a great comment,” he said. “Our offices sit atop Lake Erie, which has a much different water issue than the drought in California or the flooding in Texas and Florida. The ability to localize and customize shows really good leadership.
I do believe water is the one issue that, no matter how much attention we give it, it’s not enough. A gallon of water is almost as expensive now as a gallon of gas in the store. That should open people’s eyes.
Even the storytelling is getting more specific. Whereas the SB ’14 San Diego conference focused heavily on rich, impactful success stories, the 2015 conference was a discussion on how all companies are diving further into sustainable practices. In fact, as LaBar noted, the big problem in the corporate world now isn’t greenwashing — overstating the company’s sustainability footprint — but green blushing, which is understating actual accomplishments. While that sounds almost like an anathema in today’s hype-filled branding climate, Zimmerman pointed out that Kohler didn’t start telling its sustainability story until 2008, even though it had been fitting homes with water-efficient products since the 1970s.
“I’ve been very surprised by how realistic people are,” LaBar said. “The people who are at this conference are not the ruthless people in business. They are the people who care, and these are the people who need to move more and more into driving the way we do business.
“Normally, at events like this that are concerned with the future as well as the present, you have true believers who say all week, ‘everything is great and we’re taking the world by storm.’ But here, everyone is well aware of the challenges at hand and building realistic, attainable programs to overcome them. That’s tough for true believers, because you want to believe everyone is just like you — and why wouldn’t they do this? People are very realistic, and that has really impressed me.”
Sprint’s Keanon Swan expressed the same surprise as LaBar while touting a new way to produce paper bills without tree pulp — by using wheat straw, a far more renewable and fast-growing resource.
“A huge part of the sustainability effort is telling our story well, and continuing to find new stories, because that is how people relate to something new,” he said. “But the next step forward is converting them into things we can use in our lives. That’s the jump forward I saw this year in San Diego.”
by Robert Yehling