3 Themes to Ponder from Sustainable Brands ’16

3 Themes to Ponder from Sustainable Brands ’16

I’ve just finished up two days at the annual Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego, and, as usual, I have many thoughts and ideas to share. I’ve distilled it down to three key themes … hopefully these serve as launching pads for your own ideation:

  1. We’ve got to get past 1%. In our culture, the 1% typically refers to the richest people in America (and it was noted more than once that the top tenth of the 1% have as much money as the bottom 90% combined). But the number keeps popping up for me in other frustrating ways. Did you know that less than 1% of America’s farmland is organic? The CEO of Kashi pointed this out (as well as something very interesting they’re doing about it; see #3 below). That was notable to me since our Eco Pulse study consistently show the USDA Organic label to be one of the most trusted certifications, and since we’ve documented a noted shift in preference for the term “organic” over the term “natural.” So despite the growing preference for organics, and what seems to be an effort on the part of food manufacturers to offer more organic options at shelf, we’re still at less than 1% penetration in our farming practices.

This number also pops up on the energy front. Even with the massive drop in solar energy prices, and all the great stats from solar companies that “a new system is installed in America every two minutes,” solar still accounts for less than 1% of our overall energy consumption in America, and I’ve read before (though I couldn’t verify it with a quick Google search) that less than 1% of our housing stock has had a meaningful energy efficiency retrofit. Clearly, for all our gains on the sustainability front, we’re really in the early stages and have a long way to go.

In my opinion, that’s neither good nor bad … it’s simply about “getting it” that we’re really only beginning and there’s a lot more work to do, quickly, to create an energy-responsible, sustainable future (which is Shelton Group’s vision and purpose).

  1. We’ve got to get more specific with our language. I often hear folks paint Millennials with a one-size-fits-all brush (I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of it as well), as in “all Millennials are green” or “all Millennials expect to be VPs after six months on the job.” Thankfully, I heard a few speakers disabuse the audience of this notion, making the point that like any other demographic, it’s complicated and there’s not a lot of homogeneity. In fact, Meg Garlinghouse of LinkedIn pointed out that “Millennials do not have a monopoly on purpose” and shared stats that indicated Boomers are actually most interested in working for a company with a meaningful purpose, followed by Gen Xers. So I’m thrilled that we’re getting more nuanced on our understanding and specific in our language as related to Millennials.

We need to do the same on the subject of chemicals. For folks so deeply entrenched in the minutia of sustainability, I was surprised at the broad-brush, accepted-as-fact comments from main stage speakers that we need products that are “chemical free.” There’s no such thing … chemicals are literally inherent in everything. There are certainly “good” chemicals and “bad” chemicals – my description here feels way too kindergarten level, but hopefully I’m making my point – and as a community of people working for a sustainable future, we need to start parsing out the difference and talking about/tackling the specific concerns and issues vs. painting the entire subject of chemicals and an entire industry with a villain brush. (Since BASF is a major sponsor of this event, I’m sure they’d appreciate that as well!)

  1. Some brands have really gotten their sustainability and CSR approach right. Based on a couple of presentations, gone are the days when a company or brand kind of viewed sustainability as philanthropy that you could get away with doing a little chest-beating about. In are the days when brands and companies are identifying actual human problems or market barriers that their brands could meaningfully work on solving … while driving business in the meantime. Vaseline and Kashi both presented excellent case studies along these lines. Kashi identified that the reason more farmers don’t go organic is that it takes three years and a lot of paperwork to get their farms certified, during which time they can’t sell crops from those fields as organic because they’re “in transition.” So Kashi created a new program called Certified Transitional that allows farmers who are in the process of transitioning their fields from conventional farming to organic farming to have a market for their crops. The fields are independently certified, Kashi buys the grains, and they put them in a new cereal they’ve created just for this purpose called Dark Cocoa Karma. So they’re enabling more organic farming, which is good for their product lines in the long run, and leveraging the transition/effort for a new product in the short run. Pretty brilliant. (Watch more about it here).

Vaseline took a slightly different tack, and I think demonstrated a model for how to do a CSR effort right and engage consumers/tell the story in a meaningful way. They recognized that millions of people are literally displaced right now due to war or weather events, and they lack the most basic access to health care. Further, folks living in emergency conditions can often get cuts or skin issues that can become serious issues, simply because they have no basic first aid to treat them. So Vaseline created the Healing Project, whereby they donate products – and give consumers an opportunity to donate products – via an organization called Direct Relief that delivers medical assistance to displaced people.

What I particularly liked about this story is that while they were imagining this project and wrestling with whether or not it was a good idea, how to fund it, etc., the team saw an article in the Washington Post written by two dermatologists who had volunteered at refugee camps in Europe. There was a quote in the article that said something like, “It just didn’t occur to us on the front end how much we’d need basics like Vaseline,” which apparently they hadn’t taken with them because, like most of us, they took it for granted. The Vaseline team reached out to these two doctors, asked them to come advise the project to make sure Vaseline got it right, and then when they launched the project, sent these two doctors out to refugee camps again – this time with plenty of Vaseline.

As I watched this case study I thought, “This is the model … and if all the other brands in the room watching this now agree, we’re going to see so much of this approach in the next few years that it becomes a basic consumer expectation. In four or five years, consumers will expect the brands they buy from to be doing good in the world and to prove it.” In truth, we’re already seeing some of that expectation in our Eco Pulse study. And I don’t think it would be a bad thing at all if we all expected brands to figure out how to solve some of our world’s biggest problems, while also building business models around that problem solving.

As the head of corporate sustainability for Novozymes said yesterday, “I’m an activist. Twenty years ago, business was the bad guy I used to fight against. Today business is my tool for activism.”



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Posted on

June 9, 2016

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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