Sustainable Brands Conference 2012: The Revolution Has Begun

I was at the sixth-annual Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego last week (that’s #sb12con for those playing along on Twitter) where leading executives from around the world gathered to share ideas and experiences of how to drive corporate change that provide shared economic, environmental and social value. It’s truly an amazing week where over 1,500 attendees from 19 nations gather with one simple goal: to change the world.

“In 2012, the Sustainable Brands community has moved from a community of learning to one of action, focusing on advancing three primary initiatives,” said KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Founder and Chief Executive of Sustainable Brands. “These include driving consumer demand in more sustainable products, spurring disruptive (vs. incremental) innovation and continuing to press the business case for migration to sustainable brands.”

The theme this year was “The Revolution Will Be Branded.” To be sure companies and individuals are changing their behavior to be more environmentally and social responsible, but not fast enough. That’s where the theme of revolution comes in. Over the last year we’ve seen the everyday people stand up for equality here at home with Occupy Wall Street and overseas in the Arab Spring.

The branded part of the theme comes from the fact that it’s really individuals and companies that drive change, not governments. Partisanism and political gridlock isn’t unique to the America; companies driving change and the consumers who demand it are the forces that can pull government along on the revolution to a sustainable future.

You might think that the race to be the most sustainable creates a fierce competition between companies. In fact, the opposite is true. We all band together to help change corporate America by sharing experience and expertise — even with our competition — to multiply the benefits of our individual efforts.

It’s kind of a group of friends running their first marathon together. Sure, someone’s going to finish first, but that’s the person who runs back to give encouragement to their friends to get them across the finish line – it’s less group-hug like than it sounds, really. Instead, the Sustainable Brands Conference is a gathering of smart business managers who are determined to create change for the benefit of the environment, society and our companies.

This year at Sustainable Brands we heard from global corporations. Jeff Rice from Wal-Mart explained how their new sustainability rating system grades the environmental performance of the products and companies that supply them. Soon Wal-Mart will be incentivizing their own buyers to give preferential treatment to high performing suppliers. With the influence Wal-Mart has that simple change will affect the way tens of thousands of companies act.

John Viera from Ford explained his company’s vision for the future: to transition from a producer of vehicles to a company that moves people and materials. With the growing affluence of the global population it’s clear that another couple of billion vehicles on the road just won’t work. So Ford is setting its sights on how to move into new spaces in order to meet the growing transportation needs of the future through collaborative transportation we can all share.

It wasn’t just global companies that impressed us with their revolutionary approach. Chris Yura, founder of SustainU Clothing, told his inspirational story of starting a company that offers only domestically sourced, recycled fiber and clothing made by American workers. His vision was to take what was previously thrown away, clothing and outsourced U.S. jobs, and put them to good use. Textile workers in North Carolina and Tennessee are now hard at work making clothing with hugely reduced environmental and social impact than those manufactured from virgin materials overseas.

Those of us who are sustainability practitioners often face challenges. There are internal challenges at our companies to drive change faster. External challenges include helping more people understand why making sustainable choices are important for everyone and those choices really don’t require sacrifice, just incremental change.

Sure, we all face challenges every day and find ways to recharge our battery to fight on. Each year I come back from the Sustainable Brands Conference recharged for the next twelve months and ready charge forward with the sustainable revolution. Many thanks to folks at Sustainable Brands like KoAnn and Marianne, the speakers, my friends and colleges for locking arms to propel the sustainable revolution!