Can we afford to spend time at sustainability events? A look inside SBParis19.
Updated: May 3, 2019
Since I started my journey as an entrepreneur, events became a part of my life. Living in a country that is not my home country, having to expand my network, struggling to be known as a person and a business able to help others seemed good reasons to join them. In order to engage with the newest initiatives and trends in sustainability, an area highly dependent on collaboration, I felt important to be out there. One of my biggest challenges is there are so many events on sustainability topics these days that it is difficult to know which ones to attend. From climate change strikes to small workshops passing through the big sponsored exhibitions, you can find something related to sustainability happening every day. My company offers them too. From time to time we host a course, a workshop, a keynote event or we present at someone’s event. As a small consultancy, I can only be found if people get to know me and learn about my work. How can I showcase it? Online maybe. But businesses don't usually look for their partners online. They need to see, test and trust. Events are one way to start a professional relationship.
One of the networks and events I join is Sustainable Brands®. The relationship started because I was lucky to be introduced to its CEO, KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, and even developed a project for her and the group. That project did not go further but my admiration for KoAnn grew and I stayed connected to Sustainable Brands® because of her passion and warm hug and because I think the SB network is helping to move things forward. I usually prefer smaller and more specific networks; I am always careful about events sponsored by big brands that could be more greenwashing than anything else. Indeed, to a certain level, big events always have some "bla bla bla" with no real impact. The way I decided for now to approach my choices is the following: I ask myself, is the initiative, brand, company or network willing to do things for good, with real good intention? If so, I am happy to engage.
It does not matter where it starts. Most times people do not know exactly what is good, what is for real, what are the side effects of what they are doing. Furthermore, I believe that searching for perfection does not bring us always forward. The way humankind developed has caused so much damage to the environment and to our society that it feels to me it is time to give a chance to anyone trying to make a change in the right direction. I am not asserting we should blindly do anything without some deeper analysis. Questionable geo-engineering technologies, greenwashing strategies or initiatives causing negative impact can be found everywhere. But rather than simply opposing such ideas, we should keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to what they are trying to achieve. In most situations, we find people trying their best, with honest and clear intention to do good. Of course, none of us is a perfect judge of each other’s intentions. We do not always know what "good" really means. Moreover, neither of us can really tell the full impact of our actions. We need to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. I simply propose we try to be as open as possible. Only after opening our hearts and minds man or woman can start making sensible choices.
It was with these critical but open eyes I have joined SBParis19 this past April. I too hosted an activity at one of their hubs. And it was really inspiring to do so. With that in mind, it follows some underlines of the event, its participants and presented content. Note, please, I will use this blog to describe my own interpretation. I am far from pretending I hold the truth; my intention is simply to offer a perspective. One I hope to be relevant to the reader.
• IKEA’s attempts to rethink and act on their business models: I find absolutely courageous that a retailer as IKEA with a consistent, reliable and profitable business model is working hard to find new ways into the future. The company seems to be sincerely looking into alternative ways, more sustainable and responsible ones to move ahead. There are a lot of unsustainable aspects of their business today. Yet if you sell (with great success) furniture and home stuff based on practicality, design and low cost, you have to be bold to examine the possibility of stop selling and go into renting, re-design products to a completely different requirement and re-think your organisation considering new skills and services in an innovative way. That is amazing! Even if it is not news for the company has been conversing in this way for some time. Others like Interface have pioneered that, and I am glad to see this approach further.
We heard from Joanna Arrow, the Head of Sustainable & Healthy Living, about their internal challenges and their challenges around consumer behaviour, about their vision of good living to all and got surprised by some reality check. Did you know that (according to her speech) only 25% of the population in the markets where Ikea operates can afford to buy their items? We are talking basically about developed and rich markets!
• Foodlab Detroit and Devita Davison caught my attention. I started my career working for a big auto-parts company, Delphi. At the time I have been a few times to the plants in Michigan. I have seen with the years what had happened in the cities and towns of the state. That reality was not a charming one. I almost went to work on a fix-or-close project as one of the managers in a factory in Flint some 18 years ago. I didn’t go. Other reasons made me go working for Unilever instead. But I knew what I would be facing there. Foodlab Detroit is one of these initiatives that can transform the lives of many for good and can regenerate an area where an abrupt economical shift confronted unprepared people. They describe themselves at their website as “We’re a diverse group of locally-owned food businesses - caterers, bakers, picklers, distributors, corner stores, cafes - who support each other in the process of growing and improving our individual businesses, and who are committed to taking active steps together towards a more delicious, healthy, fair, and green food economy in Detroit.” Yet, the best was listening to the passion of Devita Davison whose personality is the one of a challenger. You cannot just stay watching, you are called into action by her. And that is what I took with me. Because this action tone is what we need the most. Action that comes from a sincere willingness to do good. She offered a real case of how cities can transform themselves and change the consumer habits engaging lots of people. Urban farms are a big movement, one I consider a good one. In my own session later, I explored the topic connecting it to green rooftops. This is one of the solutions presented in the book Drawdown – The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, edited by Paul Hawken. This is the type of solution I get inspired by and believe in. Companies can apply them as much as communities.
• Discussions on changes in retail. It experienced different workshops, speeches and debates with big brands, social scientists, experts and writers about the practical changes retail and capitalism will suffer. Such changes are seen as inevitable coming together to the changes in consumer habits. The event presented no clear answer about the future, as no one has such an answer. Simply offered an open discussion about the forces of influence. It revised what consumers are resisting to and which changes they are driving. For me, the big insight here is: retail businesses that do not want to innovate, or at least think strategically about innovating in their relationship with consumers, will struggle. They will be either swallowed by a giant and highly technological actor or will be eaten in bites by the small businesses with innovative, sustainable and alternative business models. And those are spreading as they must. Resources' scarcity, climate change and consumer' sustainable behaviour will completely (as it has already begun) reshape the retail landscape.
If you are in a country where you think you might not be so affected, rethink. There is no way to scape it. So best to prepare and be on the side of sustainable behaviour. Even if it is less convenient. BSR, EY, B Corps, Patagonia, Globe Scan, TerraCycle, IKEA, Manchester University, Urban Meisters, even P&G and others showcased data and actions that are caused by or will cause the transitions. We will see even more changes driven by social media. There will be more community-engaged businesses supported by agents such as Ashoka, Singa and Foodlab Detroit. New business models such as refilling (mentioned in the Loop Project) or repairing (one of Patagonia’ strategy) will surface. All this diversity of solutions is welcome. Will it be fast enough and always positively disruptive? That is another discussion.
• Diversity: yeah! But most importantly, inclusion. It was reassuring to listen to inspiring projects and inspiring thinking from various persons in different moments. Among them, Michel Bauwens, Ynzo Van Zantem, Mo Gawdat, Yeleka Barret from Ashoka, Guillaume Capelle from Singa, and an Ethiopian Entrepreneur, Debritu Mogesse Lusteau, who had a very simple message every time she spoke. Her message was: Ethiopians do not get their fair share from the coffee we drink. She did not even bother to address questions in an expected way within her panel, she was just repeating: coffee business is not fair to the producers. It was almost a desperate call, but one that created a moment of pure reality at SBParis. On the other hand, it was fascinating to hear about the perspective of investment companies such as BlackRock with the French CEO Jean-François Cirelli regarding what is a virtuous value chain. Diverse!
• Non-big-branded players had their space, that is good news. I have experienced this in other Sustainable Brands® events before, that being one of the things I like about them. Small players, entrepreneurs or young people have space and a moment to influence. It is not always the case, depending on the country that host the event. Pixelis did well in France. I believe many of us were touched by the passionate participation of the Youth Activators and their stated challenges. Other small entrepreneurs, consultants and I have had our space. I am exhilarated and grateful for that, considering that small guys cannot afford to participate if we are asked for significant financial contributions. I observed in the hubs quite a few small players and some medium ones, which warmed my heart. Though, I think there was an opportunity to mix the presenters a bit more. We need collaboration cross-tribes, and this is maybe a not enough explored aspect. My conclusion was that it was, and it is, worth to join Sustainable Brands® events. We can do a lot more together.
• Alternative ways, the good vibes were present, a sign of another positive tendency. I came to the event stewarding my consultancy AdvantiKA and presenting an alternative and daring workshop. I selected that instead of exhibiting about sustainable supply chains or sustainable business models, the main area of my consultancy and expertise. This way, I could bring in another passion of mine which has been a driver of impact to me: mindfulness. Yes, I lead a meditation/visualisation exercise, called Enlivened Minds In Action, putting together the challenge of designing a sustainable project. We worked at this opportunity on the design of a green rooftop. For that, I used researched information, project management tools, the ABCD process from The Natural Step® and the 23 goals from Future-Fit®. We started with 45 minutes into mindfulness. To my surprise and joy, most people who joined the session stayed until the end of the 90 minutes of activity and were absolutely engaged, motivated and excited with the approach. They provided very positive and even touching testimonies about the effectiveness of the approach. They expressed how positively surprised they were with the results.
I was likewise challenged by honest feedback. For few, it was hard to make the analytical process to engage after a deep dive into the right side of their brain. Yet, overall, the experience was fantastic. At the same time, in neighbouring hubs, other alternative methods were being practised. Just next to us Harts was hosting a session on corporate hypnosis. Nearby, Mojom was empowering people with Yoga. Heart Ambassadors was using meditation for stress reduction. I could not attend those sessions, as I was hosting mine, therefore I do not know how good they were, but I love the fact that we had this space to bring alternative ways to work our minds.
• Waste, Recycle, Reuse, Circular: is everyone aiming for the best they could with those words? Adidas showcased their new “circular” sneaker to be launched in 2021, after the success of Parley (the current state of their “circular” products). TerraCycle was clearly proud about Loop, their project to eliminate single-use packaging in P&G products, with a pilot starting in France. TerraCycle came to the stage many times with their message about why we should love waste. Indeed, I think more companies in this sector should be represented.
In another moment Tetra Pak was describing their ideas and approach on recycling. My evaluation of this topic is that we are far from where we should be. We are still talking largely about building more stuff, re-purposing stuff into other stuff, instead of changing our economy to one that would create value instead of stuff. I am not saying the presented initiatives are not welcome or good. They are. Nonetheless, for me, this was an alert. It is a great idea to have fully recyclable sports shoes, made originally out of recycled material. Shoes that you can bring to the store and sell them back at the end of their life. Congrats, Adidas. Still, where are the ideas for us to REDUCE? I attended 1 workshop where we discussed and worked on the business models of different companies to figure that out: more value, less stuff. It was a great exercise, but the workshop exposed reality again: companies do not seem to be doing that or seriously working on that. They find it too complicated and risky. Thus, they stay where they are. As much as we need recycling, reuse and circular strategies, I question if we are not only hiding from a bigger and more relevant discussion.
• Searching for systemic approach: I work with The Natural Step® framework therefore, it was great to listen to Novo Nordisk describe their strategic steps towards sustainability using the Future Fit® Business Benchmarking tools, which are based on the mentioned framework. I got inspired to see a company defending arguments I usually use when promoting projects using before-mentioned frames. It was a wonderful moment!
If I assess the event as a whole though, it felt to me as most initiatives are proceeding in isolation. Most of them are not presented with a complete analysis of impact. For example, when we talk about recycling, we disregard the original material, we hardly see data on CO2 emissions or energy usage. When we discussed circular products, we kept that discussion apart from lowering the level of consumption. When packaging was discussed, the discussion did not touch the point of how to avoid packaging at all. I do not recollect seeing, for instance, 3D-printing as a big topic of attention, although this technology was regarded in some hub discussions. Maybe I missed it, but it seems we are still lacking behind concerning leveraging both innovation and innovative thinking. Especially systemic thinking.
• Solutions, partial solutions, controversial solutions. How to place them? By no means, I would recommend current products from P&G as sustainable ones. I am against smoking so that Philip Morris was at a “Hot Seat” discussing their strategy as a step for sustainability makes me uneasy.
Biomimetics (or biomimicry) is very cool until we think: "wait a minute: aren’t we creating new environments instead of regenerating the ones we previously destroyed?" Do we even know the consequences of it? Though, if someone is open to a conversation and is at least trying to find better ways, it may be worth listening to. Our problem is so big we cannot afford to deny the possibility of any solution immediately.
In essence, I keep reasoning we should nurture connection. Attend to the events that seem to be well intended and contribute the best way we can. We just require facing it: sustainability does not happen in events. If you have a company, an organisation or if you are part of a community move into action. Open your doors to collaboration, partnership and to consultants that can help you. We need everyone engaged and diverse collaboration is the most effective way forward. There are enormous amounts of things to do, we should do them together, well and for good.
* The selected subjects, names and references in this blog originate from my personal experience within the event. There is no intention to say these are more relevant than others. There were many parts of the event I could not attend, as one cannot be everywhere at the same time. :-)