Here’s my feature story from Day 3 of the Sustainable Brands 2014 conference, held June 1-5 in San Diego, CA.
* * *
Kicking off Wednesday, the third day of the SB’14 San Diego conference, business leaders, social entrepreneurs, business disruptors and innovators presented a full morning of business challenges and opportunities to attendees gathered in the Paradise Ballroom and online across the globe. With the overarching theme of “Redesign” dominating the conversations, the morning plenaries focused on ways that brands can answer the question, “What if?” in ways that just might change the world.
SustainAbility’s Mark Lee kicked off the Wednesday morning plenaries by posing the challenge of moving forward from yesterday’s “Reimagine” theme of brands being net positive, taking big pivots and inspiring new visions of our cities and communities.
“Today’s speakers will share insights from the front lines of resigning products, services and their business models,” he said. “The ‘Reimagine, Redesign, Regenerate’ framework invites us to not only think about ‘what if?’ but also to look at the bigger challenges of accelerating sustainability efforts and scale.”
Before diving into the presentations, Rich Fernandez from Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) led a series of three short exercises to remind participants to simply breathe, cultivate response flexibility and to consider a Blue Sky mind.
Jeremiah Owyang, Founder & Chief Catalyst for Crowd Companies, got the morning going with his talk on how brands are leading the collaborative economy. “The collaborative economy is the place where individuals can find what they need directly from each other, bypassing the business economy,” he said. And when that’s the case, he asked, “What role do corporations play if people get everything they need from each other?”
The answer is that companies are redesigning their business model to be part of the sharing economy, so that the creation of things and ownership and access are shared between people and corporations. Examples of how companies are starting to make this shift include BMW renting cars directly from the showroom lot, Walmart hosting video game exchanges, Gap partnering with Divvy Bike Sharing for a shared workforce, and Nokia letting customers design and print their own phone cases.
Up next was Eileen Howard Boone, SVP of CSR & Philanthropy for CVS Caremark, who received a warm welcome from the room for her company’s February 2014 decision to remove tobacco products from its stores, even in the face of billions in lost annual revenues.
“Our purpose is: Helping people on the path to better health. When you have a purpose as clear as this one, you need to look to stop doing the things that are inconsistent with that purpose. Tobacco is the #1 preventable cause of death today.
“We had to weigh what our customers, clients, leaders and others are saying and decided that tobacco has no place in that.”
Looking forward, the company is planning a robust smoking-cessation program rollout. In the spirit of the week’s ‘What if?’ theme, Boone offered: “What if the next generation is tobacco free?”
Paul Dillinger, Head of Global Product Innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., then told the story of the company’s WellThread products, which are redesigned with the whole life cycle, environmental stewardship and worker wellbeing in mind.
“What if we took all the methods we use and instead of doing back-end problem fixing,” he said. “I promise to design without making a mess?”
As an example, asking “What if we didn’t use so much water?” helped Levi’s save 770 million liters of fresh water in just three years while keeping diversity in the color finishing. And by collaborating with other fashion brands as a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative, Levi’s is “starting to bend the curve on some of these big areas of consumption,” he said.
On the water use that comes from customer use, Dillinger suggested that people start “thinking of their cotton clothes as houseplants that need only a little bit of water and sunshine” instead of water-wasteful laundering.
Gayle Schueller, Chief Sustainability Officer at 3M, spoke next about how innovation processes can be tailored to local conditions in a developing economy, by sharing the story of the first patent issued in India.
She described how a local team in India invented a floorcare cloth with a scrubby corner to remove grime, which is based on understanding how people live, what they value and the pride people take in caring for their homes.
As well, the product creates a connection to the local traditions of handlooming and growing concern about waste created by the textile industry. As part of the product’s development, Schueller said that 3M is “creating a partnership with local governments to create jobs to take waste from textile manufacturers, and then to train people in rural communities where fibers can be hand-loomed.”
Dayna Baumeister, co-founder & Keystone of Biomimicry 3.8, then took the stage to ask big “What if” questions – asking Nature for redesign advice to solve societal, business and technology challenges.
She offered a series of inspiring biomimicry examples that are “built on 3.8 million years of R&D,” such as spiraled plastic bottles that require 15 percent less materials, solar panels arranged like sunflowers for 20 percent more power, and a non-toxic boat coating that mimics a symbiotic biofilm that fish grow to keep off barnacles.
Next, Scott Davis, Chief Concept Officer at Panera Bread, opened his talk by sharing the challenges and lessons learned by taking a more sustainable overall approach to the company’s food. When the company initially switched to a long-term sole supplier relationship for better-tasting chicken, with great customer support, they soon realized that this was only the beginning of the challenge.
“The lesson started with our own supply chain management, because for them this was a completely disruptive way to run a business, with a single source,” he said.
In the end, Davis said, “Our sourcing chain people came together to work together with the culinary folks, to rethink what their job was, and figured out how to reduce risk on pricing, sourcing and control the quality even better.”
Redesigning how to make the business work better opened the way for more innovations, and led to this week’s announcement of Panera’s new Food Policy that focuses on clean ingredients, transparency and positive impact.
“We went on a search for taste, but what we found was that sustainability was the key to competitive advantage in our world,” he said.
Aly Khalifa, founder of Lyf Shoes, is redesigning what we put on our feet, and completely disrupting how we make them.
“The best ideas come out of putting all your problems together at once,” said Khalifa, so that’s what his company does by redesigning shoes that not only close the loop with recyclable and reusable materials, but also with the customer.
Lyf shoes have interlocking components that require no tools and are made with sustainable materials. The shoe can be made in 90 seconds at the store, personalized to better fit a customer’s physical needs over time, and offer unlimited possibilities for artistic and crowdsourcing collaborations.
Rounding out the morning’s presentations, Jason Saul, CEO of Mission Measurement, announced a new tool called the Social Value Index that redesigns how we measure the social benefits of sustainability initiatives and demonstrates their value to financial performance, growth and business success.
“The big breakthrough is that we can measure customer demand for sustainability in the same way we can measure any other traditional benefit, and then test those drivers to what actually, statistically drives purchasing intent for our products,” Saul said. “From this data we can design a social value proposition for any company,” to really show the link to the estimated revenue increase for improving the company’s Social Value Score.