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Here’s my feature story from Day 1 of the Sustainable Brands ’14 conference, held June 1-4 in San Diego, CA.

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Getting to Zero: Multiple Sectors Convene Around Deforestation at SB ’14 San Diego

When all the right people work together — from suppliers to brands who use their products to NGOs — and commit to extraordinary goals, transformational change is not only possible, it happens.

That’s what participants saw in action at Monday’s afternoon workshop on progress being made and the work ahead to support the emerging “new norm” of zero deforestation in forestry supply chain standards. Major responsible sourcing commitments in forestry in the past few years are helping protect rainforests, promote safe labor practices, and drive down carbon emissions.

Future 500 CEO Bill Shireman led a conversation with major forestry supplier Asia Paper and Pulp (APP), leading consumer-facing brands, and NGOs. Setting the stage, he said, “We’re seeing the roles that different groups play in the process of transformation—to create tipping points where change becomes transformative.”

Fresh off a 20-hour plane ride, Aida Greenbury, APP’s Managing Director for Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement, shared how her company’s historic 2013 Forest Conservation Policy (FCP) came about after years of activism — transformed into collaboration — with NGO partners The Forest Trust and Greenpeace. Speaking of APP’s commitments, and the contentious path to get there, Greenbury said, “It’s an unfolding story of relationships, customer requests, conversations, friction and all the history behind it.”

Senior brand leaders on the panel included Kevin Petrie from Nestlé North America, Mark Buckley of Staples, and Sarah Severn from Nike. Robin Barr from The Forest Trust, Greenpeace’s Amy Moas, and Chris Elliot from Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA) represented the NGO communities.

A key theme was the process of building personal relationships based on trust in the midst of fierce disagreements on business practices, complicated and opaque supply chains, and remote physical locations. Speaking about what makes groundbreaking environmental commitments possible, Robin Barr, director of The Forest Trust said: “Transparency is the best way to build trust. You have to engage in a conversation on transformation.”

Barr discussed the importance of helping suppliers and brands recognize their responsibilities and roles to solve global problems like deforestation: “We’re all responsible because we’re all in the same supply chain.” And on the power of brands to lead change, she said, “Brands have the potential to make a difference. When you ask your suppliers to do something different or meet standards, that means something to them.”

“When one player changes the way they operate, the situation changes,” she saiid.

Shifting to the brand perspective, Kevin Petrie shared how Nestlé’s Creating Shared Value program for water, nutrition and rural development responsibility led to the company’s 2010 announcement that Nestlé products will not be associated with deforestation. And from there, how this led to responsible palm oil sourcing commitments.

A fascinating part of the discussion centered on the complicated issues brands face reestablishing purchasing relationships, once supplier deforestation commitments are in place and shown to be working. Mark Buckley, VP of Environmental Affairs at Staples, shared the challenges of moving away from a supplier relationship and then stepping back into it. Petrie noted that Nestlé will examine buying from APP again once assurance audits are done.

As well as the relationship between suppliers, brands and NGOs, brands are working together on issues where they share common interests, specifically climate policy. Severn spoke about her company’s collaborations with other leading brands as a BICEP founding member, a Climate Declaration signatory, and the We Mean Business coalition.

“It’s not good enough to be silent,” she said. “Our legislators need to know that companies care.”

The roundtable was the first meeting of a new multi-stakeholder initiative led by Future 500 and Sustainable Brands. The group seeks to bring together major brands, suppliers and NGOs to solve problems by redesigning how stakeholders can work together, instead of as combatants, to fully tap the power of supply chains to drive sustainability. Shireman encouraged anyone interested in participating in future conservations like this to contact him.

This conversation continues today at a 2pm breakout session on Avery Dennison’s responsible paper sourcing policy in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.

Summing up the roundtable, Shireman referred to each responsible sourcing commitment as a domino, or multiplier, for reaching the tipping point of zero deforestation. Greenpeace’s Moas pointed to last December’s unprecedented No Deforestation announcement by Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm trader, and that new palm oil commitments are being announced nearly every month.

While global deforestation is still an ongoing crisis, this conversation showed that progress is happening. “As solutions get developed and prove successful in the marketplace, you can no longer say it’s not possible,” said Barr.

 

Here’s my latest trend piece for Sustainable Brands.

February 20, 2014

Recent commitments from L’Oréal, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and P&G to phase microbeads out of their products by (or before) 2017 is laudable and a good step forward. This news responds to scientific research linking the tiny, polystyrene balls to Great Lakes pollution.

Meantime, “ban the bead” laws are taking shape in California and New York. Like the manufacturers’ phase-outs, it will take years for the ban law, if passed, to go into effect.

Together, these news items have me wondering:

  • Could our sustainability and government leaders be doing more, faster?
  • And if companies do decide to act faster, with some short-term financial hit, will investors and consumers support them for doing the right thing in the long-term?

We could call it the “CVS Effect” — playing off the drugstore chain’s “no smokes” decision — and the burgeoning “Blackfish Effect” sparked by the anti-Sea World film.

I think these questions deserve a closer look because of the bigger picture. The answers can either support — or hinder — climate action that’s getting underway by the Obama administration and leading U.S businesses.

These questions come from a place of examining what’s possible for forward-looking brands that are already committed to sustainability. It bears repeating that all of the brands in the microbead discussion already are sustainability leaders in their industries. Obviously, global manufacturing supply chains can’t be turned off overnight. But when necessity demands it, such as the 1982 Tylenol recall, things can happen very quickly.

So if CVS is truly a game-changer for health reasons, it opens the door for other forward-looking brands to take faster, bolder action for environmental and natural capital reasons as well. Making the decision to phase out an ingredient, while important, doesn’t stop the clock on the harm being done. The longer we wait, the more microbead pollution will go through wastewater treatment facilities, enter waterways, affect that water body’s ecology, and be consumed by fish, then by people. Each of these steps arguably has some amount of harm associated with it.

It strikes me that change can only happen today. That’s true for any choice we make as individuals, as citizens, and as business owners, to protect and restore the environment. So why not start stretching the bounds of what’s possible, sooner, as a better way of doing business?

For now, it remains to be seen how consumers and investors will respond to CVS’ “no smokes” announcement, and if any other retailers will follow their lead. And on the microbead side, how will consumers respond to the news? Will they shift to a brand’s other products that don’t contain the beads? Would they be open to guidance from manufacturers to do so?

I’m betting that, as it become more normal for companies to make bold pro-health and pro-environmental choices, these decisions will be rewarded by investors and consumers. I’d back this up by pointing to cross-sector collaborations such as the Net Positive group, the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance and Sustainable Apparel Coalition — they’re finding that working together with industry and nonprofit peers, for bigger global benefit, is good business, too.

Our responsibilities in life and business don’t end at the factory wall. That’s where they begin. It’s time for big sustainability actions to be the norm for business-forward action, instead of the exception.

Here’s hoping the CVS Effect is just getting started.

Here’s my latest trend piece for Sustainable Brands.

February 14, 2014

Leaders Now Seeing Climate Change as Risk That Can Be Managed, Not Uncertainty That Can’t (New for Sustainable Brands)

Last month, a front-page New York Times story reported that global business leaders Coca-Cola, Nike, and others are factoring in climate change risks as threats to the bottom line. This news followed CDP’s December reveal that 29 major companies use a shadow carbon price in their finances for climate risk evaluation.

What do these stories have in common? Risk.

I’ve noticed a decisive pivot in business conversations about climate change impacts from uncertainty — as just cause for delay or inaction — to a core business competency: managing risk. For forward-looking companies, this pivot may signal a tipping point from academic discussion to business action that they can use to their advantage.

Simply put, this change moves the conversation from: “What if we’re wrong about potential climate change-fueled catastrophes?” to “What if we’re right? What do we stand to lose, and how can we manage those risks?”

As an example of how this conversation has shifted, look at how Talking Climate’s Adam Corner explored uncertainty versus risk as an academic finding in November 2012. Compare that to his forceful Jan. 31 Guardian piece calling for the framing of risk over uncertainty as a business imperative.

While this idea may be familiar to SB readers, it’s worth noting how fast and far the “risk rather than uncertainty” message is spreading to broader business audiences — and who is delivering the message.

Forward-thinking business leaders and influencers can leverage this momentum for action within their organizations, and with industry peers, supply chain partners, customers, government and civil society allies.

Here are 11 notable recent instances in which business conversations about climate-change impacts center on risk:

Sept. 9, 2013: Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge” site reports on shifting the debate about climate change from a political discussion to a practical conversation about risk and reward.

Oct. 3, 2013: Financiers Michael Bloomberg, Hank Paulson and Tom Steyer announce their year-long “Risky Business” initiative to measure U.S. economic risks from climate change impacts.

Oct. 24, 2013: Investors ask oil, coal and power companies for climate risk information.

Dec. 6, 2013: Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards reports her findings from a meeting called “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty around Climate Change.”

Jan 15: Ceres hosts the Climate Risk Investor Summit with 500 global financial leaders.

Jan. 23: Sustainability thought leader Bob Willard posts “Unleashing 3 Risk Arguments in the Climate Debate” article

Jan. 24: At the Davos World Economic Forum, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim calls for carbon pricing and climate risk disclosure by government, businesses and NGOs

Jan. 30: Citing fiduciary duty, 17 philanthropic groups pledge divestment from fossil fuels and investment in clean-energy technologies as a “prudent response to climate risks.”

Jan. 31: Bloomberg starts his new job as United Nations special envoy to help cities around the world prepare for climate-change risks.

Feb. 5: White House announces “climate hubs” to help farmers and rural communities respond to climate risk.

Feb. 7: A new Ceres report shows more companies reporting climate risk to CDP than to the SEC.

The scientific consensus on human-caused global climate change hasn’t changed that much in the past 10 years. In that time, there’s been very little climate action overall. But now that’s clearly changing.

It’s been said that, “When we change how we look at things, the things we look at change.” I’m encouraged that global leaders in business, finance, government and behavioral economics are shifting to talking about climate-change impacts as business risks that can be managed rather than uncertainty that can’t.

This is a powerful mindset we can use to help achieve broad, global sustainability gains at every level.