All hail the Sustainarati!

22 Mar 2015
SOURCE:
Gerri Ward, Sustainability Manager, Z Energy

Highlights from the Sustainable Brands 2015 conference

I was fortunate enough to attend the Sustainable Brands '15 Conference in San Diego the week before last. Sustainability is core to Z's values and to our brand value – Solving What Matters for a Moving World – and I was keen to learn from global experts as to how to communicate sustainability effectively to today's consumers.

Attendees gathered at Paradise Point, a gorgeous resort island in San Diego harbour, to enjoy four days of inspiration, stimulation, ideating (yes, apparently, that's a word!) and unparalleled networking. The Conference was an engaging combination of plenaries - featuring some of the titans of the sustainability industry, such as Unilever, Walmart, Target, B Corp and Levis – and more interactive workshops on specific streams; I mostly attended the Driving Demand and Behaviour stream.

What really struck me was how entrenched sustainability felt as an industry there – admittedly, wewere in California! – but it really felt well past being debatable or transient. These were the top dogs of some of the most influential firms in the world, and they'd been walking the talk for so long, it was just the way they did business. There was a real feeling of community, and comradery, but also something deeply entrenched and inarguable. They were just getting on with it, and doing it at a scale I often found mind-boggling.

My take-away from the Conference was that it was a fantastic balance of learning and reassurance. I was utterly inspired by the pragmatism these companies brought to embedding sustainability into their businesses, and the scale at which they were getting on with it. It also brought home to me the importance of knowing your own, as well as your company's purpose. As one speaker said, "Know your own purpose, and you will be powerless against it; it will suck you through".

My word of the week came from a presentation EY did on integrating the science of purposeinto sustainably – "One of the things I wanted to talk to you, The Sustainarati about, is that you can have a really mature sustainability programme, that isn't aligned with your purpose, and you are going to find yourself as one of those people who really care and have spreadsheets and sticky notes and do a sustainability report with no budget and no business relevance."

There were roughly four key themes that emerged over the week for me.

  • Be clear on your purpose, and communicate that purpose with integrity and authenticity
    Customers and consumers will sniff out inauthenticity and pretence, and it will work against you.
  • It's all about partnerships
    Big to big; little to little; little to big; big to little. From Walmart and Target's Sustainability Summit partnership, to Goodwill's e-commerce Give Back Box initiative, through to my favourite story of the Conference – the New Balance / Good Gym partnership – everybody's all about banding together to do better, together.
  • Employee engagement = returns
    Another inarguable truth, especially for the big guys, was that happy workers = productive companies = better returns. Standing for sustainability and CSR tends to speak to people's values – especially the oft-quoted Millennials – and attracts and retains top talent.
  • Sustainability is the gift with purchase; not the shiny bauble
    I asked everyone from Target to North Face to Starbucks to Solar City to Staples to Theo's organic chocolate to the sustainable surfboards guy – what's with the lack of metrics on numbers of customers who choose to buy my product because it's 'green'? The answer seemed to be that that mind-set was so last year. Now, the big brands understand that embedding sustainability into your product or service as a truly integral, baked-in part of your offering, is why customers will choose you, keep coming back to you, and remain loyal to your brand.

Again, it's all about authenticity.

I'll be hosting an informal Town Hall here at Z on the 30th June at 11:00 to give a short debrief on the highlights of the Conference. If any SBC members would like to attend you'd be more than welcome; please just let me know: gerri.ward@z.co.nz