By Silvia Schmid
William McDonough at the Sustainable Brands Conference “From Revolution to Renaissance” in San Diego (Courtesy of Sustainable Brands)
Sustainable Brands’ 2013 Conference “From Revolution to Renaissance” took place this past week in San Diego, bringing together hundreds of professionals and thought leaders in sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Sustainable Brands is a supporting member of the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL).
Though many topics were addressed, three of the most salient themes from the conference were:
- Transitioning towards transparency and full disclosure
- Maintaining initial values while navigating through big data
- Changing perspectives on sustainability
Transitioning towards transparency and full disclosure:
Gil Friend, from the strategic advisory firm Natural Logic, reminds us that the initial message of environmental stewardship was that there was no “away” in the environment, i.e. that disposing of a product or material as waste did not make it simply disappear into the environment. And according to Mr. Friend, nowadays there’s also no “private” in sustainability. In the past, the corporate social responsibility practices of a far upstream supplier of a major retailer were generally not known – or of much importance – to the company’s consumers and stakeholders. However, due to major efforts toward greening the supply chain, greater transparency is now expected from suppliers, incentivizing radical changes to manage reputational risk. And thanks also to the use of social media, this transition towards increased transparency should continue to intensify with time. Innovative practices, such as Target‘s sharing of supply chain scorecards among its suppliers (albeit anonymously), have shown that wider transparency is leading to improved environmental performance in the supply chain.
Maintaining initial values while navigating through big data:
The concept of big data is not new, but the creation and availability of enormous troves of data on everything from consumer behavior to corporate environmental performance has grown exponentially in the past decade. This new data, while often extremely useful in accelerating processes and improving efficiency, can also have detrimental effects. For one, the nearly immediate availability of so much data can lead to analyses that neglect initial values. According to William McDonough, author of the acclaimed book Cradle to Cradle and the newly published Upcycle, in many cases we begin by looking at metrics first, trying to make sense of the numbers, while losing track of the initial questions we wanted to explore. Mary Lewis of Sprint agreed that big data must be approached with caution. “If you torture big data long enough,” she says, “it will confess to anything.” We want to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions to questions that we didn’t ask.
Changing the perspective on sustainability:
Mr. McDonough boldly reminds us that “being less bad does not equal being good.” In his remarks, the author and winner of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, called for a complete redesign of our processes, adding Redesign, Renew, and Regenerate to the more common three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Similarly, Terracycle’s CEO Tom Szaky emphasizes that garbage is a human invention, and that in the environment there is no such thing as waste: “it’s all food for somebody else.” Mr. Szaky argues that the problem of garbage as we know it can indeed be solved. The key, he says, is to involve children, who tend to be more receptive to environmental stewardship than adults; teaching children from an early age about environmental impact can have a “trickle-up” effect throughout the community. Similarly, Molly Morse of Mango Materials reaffirmed the “non-concept” of waste, explaining her venture’s business model: producing ecofriendly bioplastic ware with polymers made from methane.
Finally, Mr. McDonough asks a pungent, yet mandatory, question: is sustainability enough? For instance, Mr. McDonough explains, shouldn’t we celebrate biodiversity, instead of simply respecting it? Mr. McDonough calls for a complete redesign of the current consumption system, rethinking our actions “from the dumpster up” and shifting our focus from “behaving less bad” to “creating more good.” After all, should we not strive to leave a better world for the next generation? Here’s to the new renaissance of sustainability; and yes, it’s going to take forever, Mr. McDonough adds.
Don’t miss the upcoming Sustainable Brands “New Metrics of Sustainable Business” Conference, to be held right here at the University of Pennsylvania, September 24-25.
Also remember to check out the resources from the Sustainable Brands 2013 San Diego Conference by clicking here.