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Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Person of the Year: sustainable brands

Notable about their advocacy is the focus on the third and most often under-developed muscle of sustainability: social justice.

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

Greenwash. I can feel the glare of greenwash growling at me when I even write the words “sustainable brands.”

I’m flashing back to 2004. The 23 year old Sierra Club president-wunderkind Adam Werbach was being torched by criticisms he was a greenwashing, hypocritical sell out after he abdicated his office, told environmentalists their movement was dead, and went to work for Walmart building their sustainability practice.

So, declaring “sustainable brands” my 2016 Person of the Year will hopefully not require me to hire his bodyguards so I can go out in public. Yes, that really happened to Werbach after numerous death threats.

Death threats? Greenies aren’t peaceniks?

In hindsight, maybe Werbach and, before him respected enviro-author, Paul Hawken were onto something that is now showing signs of happening.

“Business is the only mechanism powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation,” Hawken wrote in 1992.

Indeed, Hawken’s now famous 1993 classic, “The Ecology of Commerce,” offered that hypothesis--and detailed how business must evolve these attributes or perish, along with all of us.

Hawkens and Werbach envisoned and pushed for the evolution of “sustainable brands,” big businesses that embrace sustainability principles and practices. Is that vision playing out? Are sustainable brands coming of age in 2016?

My sense of 2016 is a good number of big businesses became some of most positively influential forces on the planet—and are beginning to deliver Hawken’s vision of sustainable brands.

For proof, we need look no further than North Carolina. North Carolina?

Welcome to a world where everything is opposite.

“Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.”
― Michael Ellner, author, Hope is Realisitic
Consider North Carolina’s anti-gay legislation HB2. In addition to the usual suspects, who opposed that bill? Not just in words, but in actions?

Businesses, lots of them. In addition to lobbying against the bill and writing in the press against discrimination, many businesses burst forward to protest and/or repeal the bill.

Big businesses left North Carolina. Others that were planning to build there went elsewhere.  It is among the most compelling stories of business advocacy for human rights I can remember. And it will be effective at forcing change upon a belligerent state legislature and a now defrocked governor, sooner or later. However, the damage to North Carolina’s brand will not heal for years.

Big time sports biz showed up large too. Obviously, the NBA and NCAA are big businesses. Both organizations pulled major events out of NC. Numerous coaching legends and heavyweight sports heroes sounded off in opposition to discrimination, including NC’s own NASCAR. The awesome power of sport, the world’s biggest platform for change, teamed up with business in support of Hawken’s vision.

It’s an incredible moment that would have been even more notable were it not against the backdrop of the ugliest political year ever.

Notable about their advocacy is its focus on the third and most often under-developed muscle of sustainability: social justice. If you’ve read me before, you get the short shrift sustainability often gives to the most important sustainability element: people. But not this time. Not in North Carolina. Business is bodying up for people.

It’s not just social do-gooder stuff either. Over 300 companies—including many Fortune 500s-- have implored the Trump White House to stand pat on the Paris Agreement that took effect in 2016. Scores of big names, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc. are hooking up to 100% renewable energy and will be all green by 2020 or sooner. Bill Gates, along with big philanthropy, is putting a billion business bucks into clean energy R&D as a hedge against potential federal cuts in climate action funding.

Santa’s list of who’s been nice is getting longer.

But surely it’s greenwash. It’s all fake, right? They are just doing it to make a buck?  These companies are dirty, right? I mean, look at some of the brands. They have major problems...


“The cold hard truth is that businesses will invariably want to explore any potential commercial benefit of more ethical operations, looking at opportunities to “sell” sustainability either by charging a slight premium (“renewable only” energy tariffs) or by outcompeting a rival (two bars of chocolate at the same price, but one is Fairtrade). But ultimately, it boils down to whether operating sustainably pays.”
-Anonymous confessions of a Corporate Social Responsibility Director

Greenwash has a storied and chilling history in the oft shabby annals of corporate history. Decades of deceit and misdirection don’t quickly give way to fuzzy feelings of “it’s all good”.  Just as North Carolina will now long be remembered for its “state-sponsored discrimination,” a history of cynical, self-serving corporate greenwash has—and should—temper people's palates so that our first taste of new corporate wine should always be skeptically spat out.

Corporate Social Responsibility has long been seen as another incarnation of corporate “sound wash” meant to portray do-gooder intent from the top of Big Business’ gleaming skyscrapers--while they do bad elsewhere. AKA, better greenwash. Is NC activism just reputation risk-management and HR recruiting plays for these big brands? Is their Paris Agreement activism just conceding that the vast majority of nations are working on climate action—and they are a big market for brands? Are brands hooking up to renewables just because they are now cheaper?

Well, that doesn’t hurt.

I can easily concede that CSR is about brand reputation. Fair enough. And that’s the good news. Because who defines brand reputation? We do. All of us. So, if big brands are worried we will think less of them—and spend less with them—they are recognizing the power of people. Yes, we can be conned—but not forever. There’s a long list of brands that tanked because their reputation went bad. Indeed, while we’re in NC, do you remember what happened to tobacco giant Phillip Morris?

HB2 was so counter to emerging societal norms that it forced the hand of many brands. And they responded, showed up, and have made an enormous impact. In a year full of reversals, those brands told their normally influential GOP conservative business leader friends: “no.” In public. Vocally.

And in force.

Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray): “This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions…Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness!...Earthquakes, volcanoes......The dead rising from the grave!...Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!”

So what defines a “sustainable brand” anyway?

For starters, there is a big expensive conference about all this called, you guessed it, “Sustainable Brands.”

Confession, I attend this event and have blogged about it before. As I wrote, there’s no shortage of sound wash there—but most content is high quality, valuable and creative, IMHO.

Anyway, SB contends that these brands are a “global community of business innovators who are shaping the future of commerce worldwide... [and] our goal has been to inspire, engage and equip today's business and brand leaders to prosper for the near and long term by leading the way to a sustainably abundant future.”

So much for definitions. Here are some important characteristics of a sustainable brand, in the world according to Dave, the more of these fit an enterprise, the better:

  • Robust carbon emissions reporting across their value chain (e.g. CDP, GRI reporting)
  • Progressive employment practices (e.g. diversity and inclusion, fair wages, etc)
  • No association with known bad actors, (e.g. ALEC, Right wing NGOs, Qatar, etc)
  • Elimination of waste and polluting practices (e.g. zero waste, zero emissions, etc)
  • Employee owned, B Corporations, democratic decision making, (e.g. New Belgium Brewing, et al)
  • Social justice and enviro advocacy built into the business model (e.g. Patagonia)
  • A sincere and positive purpose for the enterprise that’s not spin (e.g. Justin’s Nut & Butter)
  • Strong, implemented and checked supply chain standards, especially regarding human rights.

Probably none of the brands that showed up in NC meet all these tests perfectly. Some more than others. And none of them have a perfect past—or present. Certainly, somebody is polluting or conning somebody somewhere. Some of them have their own very significant ethical issues going on as we speak (you know who they are). Granted. Few of them were “born good.” They may aspire to noble purpose--but they are mired in a business purpose that is something short of “save the planet.”

So, should we recognize them, do business with them, take their money, praise them? Or eschew them because many have a checkered past—or present?

When faced with this “green purity” test by ardent enviros I ask: “who do you want to change? The hippies or the dirties?” Indeed, if you have to be perfect for us lofty greenies to agree to work with you and appreciate you when you do good, how long is that list?

So short.

The envelope please

Notwithstanding the fair concerns of greenwash, motives and actions, the brands that showed up on HB2 showed up. They made a difference—big time. And they made it in the most impactful yet underserved aspect of sustainability: social justice.

So, for the purposes of this award, if a company is listed here as part of the HB2 resistance, they are, by the power vested in me unanimously by a committee of one, accorded the title of The Department of Changed 2016 Person of the Year, and shall be shown all the rights, privileges, and benefits befitting such title, whatever those are, at least by me.

I sincerely thank you for all you have done—and look forward to seeing more good work in 2017.

Happy New Year!