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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sustainable Brands 2015: Branding beyond the binary bait

Old habits are called old habits because, well, they are habitual.
And I am a habitual offender.

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

It would be easy to flip off the Sustainable Brands conference. Corporate raiders spouting the S-word? How much gooey new green wash can these suits concoct?

But that would be stupid.

Want proof it’s stupid? Well, the flip-off was my first impulse. ‘Nuff said.

So after a few years of people telling me it was worth the price (hefty) and the time (four days), at great personal sacrifice I went to the chichi San Diego oceanside resort hosting this green corporate orgy to rub cotton with the suits.

My excuse? Paul Hawken told me to. Well, sorta.

Twenty-something years ago, respected enviro author Paul Hawken made the case in “The Ecology of Commerce” and “Natural Capitalism” that only business could save the planet. Governments certainly cannot.  Throw in higher education as the training ground for businesspeople and Hawken’s manifestos were a significant inspiration for my career.

No, this is not going to be a corporate apologist screed. There was plenty of bullshit at SB15. As one attendee told me who has been coming for several years, “the talk is still pretty immature. Lots of references to third-world ‘markets,’ margins, and value chain. That’s corporate “sound wash” for what they should be focusing on: third-world people, prosperity, and the planet.”  

Yes, like all things sustainable, language is important.  So is substance. There were a lot of excellent sessions (PowerPoints) at SB15 too. 

My ADD/ADHD kicked in at 1.5 days.

Love thy enemy

Last year, protestors showed up by land and sea to offer opinions about 3M’s environmental practices and Coke and Pepsi’s use of tar sands fuels. Didn’t see any protestors this year. I was secretly disappointed. Would have been entertaining if a little puckering that I was standing with the suits. 

Yet while I didn’t know many folks and saw only a few campus sustainabilistas, I felt more like a collaborator than a mole.

And so it is: there are a lot of fine people working for sustainability inside the big brands. Talking with them they sound like many crunchy Boulderites I talk with every day; they just have more expensive clothes and are platinum on three airlines.

Chatting with a sustainability director of a Fortune firm, she was talking about how difficult it was for her to compost and recycle correctly in her home community—and how she was bird dogging her co-workers and friends about various sustainability behaviors. Another women is CSO of a big oil company. She was frustrated by the barriers in her firm against transitioning to renewables—and by getting rid of Styrofoam coffee cups in some of the offices. Anther susty leader in a $3-billion crunchy food firm has a staff of three. You get the message.

Sounded pretty familiar.

Obviously, first takeaway from SB15 is to separate corporate sustainability people from perceived corporate shortcomings. They may work for a corporation that’s not seen as sustainably pure, but they are generally good, bright people trying to change that organization as best they can.

And honestly, many campuses have their own ethical and sustainability liabilities too. We're not pure either; we're talking shades of grey (No, not those shades of grey. This is a family show). So I try to judge not, at least when I am feeling expansive.

Lesson two came from the green suits’ experience advocating for change inside their organizations. Many confirm the research that being perceived as activists translates to being marginalized by your own organization and, frankly, many people. 

That also sounds very familiar.

Copyright 2015 Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant
One particularly useful workshop explored our “ways of being” that may bait us into personas with limited ability to effect the behavioral and cultural changes we wish to see.  Frankly, this was as inwardly reflective, soul searching, and touchy-feely a session as any I have been to in Boulder. There was some very candid and honest analysis of our own deep shit, ego barriers, and the self-enforced limits to our own objectivity.

I kept smelling incense and hearing Zamfir in a room full of suits and PowerPoint. I wondered if I was still in Boulder and getting baked by background pot smoke.

When were we going to start holding hands and chanting?

We explored the tension of the world as it is compared to what we'd like to see as a driver of our personal countenance.  In this tension there are many ego platforms that reward us internally but retard our effectiveness externally.

For instance, we may subconsciously be feeding our egos and “sense of being” by knowing and spouting off “what sustainability is.”  That certainty may put off others we are seeking to influence—but we eat the ego food of being smart, superior or feeling certain in an uncertain world.  We can easily come off as holier than thou but secretly enjoy our distinctive identity and elevated standing. 

Likewise, indicting those “bad corporations” or, conversely, those unrealistic bunny huggers installs us among the millions of binary players in a contrived binary game. The world is not polar; “they” just want you to think that.  Binary beliefs (you're either on my team or not) is a substitute for thinking. If we bite on the binary bait we become unwilling to see the complexity, grey scale, and ambivalence that surrounds everything in life.

Needless to say all this ego introspection made my ginormous ego very nervous at first. But I became more relaxed as this 4-hour workshop progressed from analysis to action.

Complexity made simple

"When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment. There are two logical ways to mend this mismatch: reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own.”
- Kegan & Lahey. “Immunity to Change.” 

Copyright 2015 Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant
The fix is easy but hard: embrace ambivalence. On the grey scale continuum we all navigate between being entirely self-centered to being entirely selfless there are complex issues. Likewise, the planet isn’t showing any signs of getting simpler either.

We can choose to revert to a binary good/bad worldview (and revel in ego stroking) or we can embrace complexities and work with others and within our organization to identify them and talk them through.

This openness is key to moving past stuck conversations with stakeholders we have had little success with. Move beyond just talking to the choir. This is not easy work, it will probably be painful, and I hate pain. So no promises except that I, like many, are stuck in some conversations that are going nowhere and need to find new approaches. Those stuck conversations promise to keep following the same plot until we change the script.

So the suits also talked about “aligning corporate brand values with stakeholders’ values.” The “purpose-driven economy” is the buzz-term PWR suits et al were brandishing. Nice concept. Show me. 

Sounds complex...

Some examples of rethinking a brand’s position as purveyor of stuff to purveyor of ethical stuff were proffered. Patagonia is the go-to emblem of ethical stuff but others are following. 

Heineken updated its responsible drinking approach with a new roll out that builds on its “Sunrise belongs to moderate drinkers” marketing campaign. They say they can sell more beer by selling less beer. Stella Artois reprised its successful social media activation of its “Buy a lady a drink” effort that seeks to provide in-home drinking water to millions of women in under-resourced nations. They have raised millions so far.

Besides showcasing these branding innovations, SB15 sessions also focused on learning/brainstorming new approaches. This was fun—and I watched one group hit a home run.

An emerging sustainable coffee purveyor, Thrive Coffee, sought a passionate and profitable (for the individual farmer) pathway between their growers in Costa Rica and busy corporate coffee consumers in Every City USA.

What emerged from some great conversation was an upgrade on Folgers old “Juan Valdez” marketing campaign. The idea emerged to connect consumers’ vision of Thrive’s farmers by reminding us of the agrarian roots we all have somewhere in our lineage. That is, we all have farmers in our bloodlines, we’ve just lost track of that. So through the miracle of modern marketing brilliance—and from the mind of very sharp Habitat for Humanity leader from LA—the “Find the Farmer In You” moniker was born at a ten-seat round table in the back of some meeting room overlooking San Diego Bay. That hook made sustainable coffee personal, real and relevant. 


Maybe you had to be there to smell the coffee.

Taking it home

Rapper Prince EA closed out the conference with a honest speech from the heart, soul, and the future. Here's a very sharp guy with a remarkable video/social commentary that broke the 2-million views barrier in two days; it's now at 12-million. His new video and his way of being brought the 1,000+ people left at the closing session to tears, me among them.

Besides feeling a new sense of kinship/sympathy for our brethren in the brand world and connecting more with my own foibles (long list), I was challenged to envision how to make some of what I learned and felt real on campus. Clearly, embracing complexity and admitting I personally don’t have all the answers is off the table. Being stuck is comforting; I know what to expect.

Thinking about how to align campus sustainability with campus mission is on the table—and the subject of previous blogs. So we got that handled, right?

Beer’s all round!

Maybe Heineken has got the right approach: sell more beer by selling less. Maybe we can teach more sustainability by teaching less? Call it responsible sustainability. Less lectures and more action. Don’t tell students, faculty and staff what sustainability is and what to do, ask them what it is and what to do. Embrace the breadth and complexity that comes back and work together to sort it out.

Maybe sustainability is but one path grasshopper, and there are many paths to nirvana.

Maybe we have more capacity to teach students if we have fewer facilities to teach in too. Growth drives carbon, costs, sprawl, and community impacts among other things. Maybe in an honest, open and objective discussion of the challenges we face the idea of less growth or no growth emerges as a possibility.

Maybe it’s already on the mind of someone we are in a stuck conversation with?

My CFO recently rocked a group of us with “the most sustainable building we have is the one we don’t build.” Wow, that whiplashed my brain. So I quickly branded her perspective as coming strictly from her sense of cost and the $450-million deferred maintenance bill we have.

When I reflected that story in the touchy-feely workshop the presenter just laughed. “You just took the bait,” he said. “You projected your ambivalence onto her. I’m betting you are stuck in a conversation with her.”

Guilty on all counts.

Old habits are called old habits because, well, they are habitual. I am a habitual offender. I want to flip off and marginalize the big bad corporations, my CFO, and any of you if you disagree with me.  

But that would be stupid.

So here is my top takeaway and challenge from Sustainable Brands: I hope to never say “yeah, but…” ever again.

Maybe I can move my brand beyond the binary bait.


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