GreenBiz 2019: highlights and key takeaways from a sustainability communicator

“It’s not possible to have a sustainable business without a sustainable system.” – Sally Uren, Chief Executive, Forum for the Future

The best part about attending a conference like GreenBiz is being surrounded by influential sustainability leaders who are all working towards the shared goal of advancing sustainable business practices. Just as UN’s SDG number 17 calls for partnerships to strengthen sustainable development around the world, there is an understanding in this ever-evolving space that collaboration – not competition – is what will ultimately make sustainability a stronger force in the business world.

At last week’s conference in Phoenix, conversations centered around transparency, climate change, inclusion, ESG reporting, and most importantly, opportunity. As global issues become more pressing, the business sector holds the most power to catalyze positive change. This is an exciting time for a sustainability communicator because telling your story to the right audience is key to driving systemic change and long-term success.

Below I’ll share some personal highlights and key takeaways from GreenBiz 2019.

“ESG investing is the best thing to ever happen to sustainability.”

This quote came from an audience member during the “Responding to Investors’ ESG Demands” session on Wednesday, prefacing the idea that ESG investing is driving business leaders to discuss the business case for sustainability more effectively than ever before. ESG investing is pushing the needle to emphasize the financial benefit of sustainability while creating urgency for businesses to address material risks within their business model. Gone are the days when corporations saw sustainability as a cost; it is now approached as a business opportunity.

Having a vague purpose is worse than having no purpose at all.

During the “The ROI of Purpose” session, Impact ROI shared a surprising statistic revealing that companies with a noncommittal or unfocused purpose actually perform worse financially than companies that have no purpose at all. In today’s era of transparency, having a convoluted purpose can make your business appear disingenuous or untrustworthy while failing to give your employees a meaningful way to connect with their work. Because the world is ever-changing, the key to future-proofing your purpose is making it transformational – an aspirational roadmap that will guide the evolution of your business and the impact you make on society.

A paradigm shift in how sustainability leaders set their targets.

With the UN’s SDGs calling on business leaders to address the world’s most pressing issues, we are starting to see sustainability teams set aspirational, science-based goals rather than throwing out arbitrary numbers with little connection to the bigger picture. The session entitled “Mission Critical: Aligning Business Strategy with Science-Based Goals” explored the urgent business case to align corporate strategy with science-based goals in order to tackle global challenges. The panel argued that when businesses set short-sighted, achievable goals, they will only make incremental changes, but when they set moonshot goals, it will drive innovation and ultimately challenge businesses to find solutions to problems on a larger scale – even if that means changing their business model altogether.

Natural solutions to climate change.

With the rise of ESG investing, climate change is at the top of environmental risks facing the business sector, especially for corporations who rely on natural resources. While you might think that going paperless helps the environment, the panel “The Forgotten Solution to Climate Change: Nature” explored how the demand for paper-based products actually helps mitigate climate change, because well-managed forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere. During the panel, Sophie Beckham, Senior Manager of Natural Capital Stewardship for our client International Paper, shared the company’s collaboration with The Nature Conservancy to develop best practices that balance the needs of forest-based businesses with environmental goals, especially climate mitigation.

Data is driving sustainable change.

Technology and sustainability have always been inextricably linked, but now the conversation has expanded from innovative solutions to how the collection of big data is driving sustainable change, especially when applied to assess environmental risks. Data helps companies understand how their operations affect the environment so that they can optimize their resources, which not only reduces environmental impact but also increases revenue. We have seen this in action with our client, Qualcomm Wireless Reach. The tech company partnered with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation on a program that utilizes drone technology to help farmers in Brazil reduce environmental impact while increasing crop yields.

A partnership to fight plastic pollution + poverty.

Perhaps the most interesting highlight for me on a personal level was learning about SC Johnson’s partnership with the Plastic Bank – a nonprofit that aims to stop the flow of plastic into our oceans while also empowering people living in poverty given that the majority of plastic in the ocean comes from impoverished communities. During Wednesday’s plenaries, SC Johnson showed a video of their CEO and Chairman, Fisk Johnson, scuba diving in Indonesia, where the water is heavily polluted with plastic. This was the inspiration behind the partnership that incentivizes people in Bali to bring plastic they collect to a special center where they can exchange it for digital tokens which can then be used to purchase goods through Blockchain technology. SC Johnson recycles the collected plastic for their products, helping reach their commitment of all plastic packaging being recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.

What sustainability communicators can learn from a former NFL player.

The most surprising speaker who took the stage during the conference was Ovie Mughelli, a former fullback for the Atlanta Falcons. Mughelli became dedicated to environmental advocacy after his son was born prematurely and was unable to go home due to poor air quality that would be lethal to baby’s underdeveloped lungs. In an effort to inspire African American youth to care about the environment, Mughelli partnered with the UN to develop his own environmental based comic series: Gridiron Green. This comic is a shining example of how communicators must employ creative, outside-the-box tactics to reach their target audience and inspire change. As Mughelli said, “People don’t care unless they know why they should care. I put my comic out because I want to educate people about why they should care.”

Did Gillette Take a Stand or a Step Too Far?

Just barely two weeks into 2019 and another brand takes a stand. This time it is Gillette with its The Best Men Can Be campaign, “celebrating the stories of men making a positive impact, and to inspire others in the process.” True to form, and following in the path of other cause marketing campaigns, Gillette’s ad launching its new campaign has been aimed to evoke an emotional response with the hopes to kickstart impact and long-term value for the brand. While time will tell if they succeed, the ad has undeniably stirred up emotions and controversy.

Gillette’s new campaign is receiving extra attention compared to some of its peers’ largely due to the amount of backlash and negative commentary that news media outlets have reported on. That said, the backlash should, of course, be expected. Change does not occur without resistance, which is good, as it forces a conversation and individuals to critically reason. And just how some customers burned their Nike shoes, and others boycotted Dick’s Sporting Goods, there will be customers who will loudly oppose Gillette’s campaign — unfortunately for them, razors aren’t the most flammable. After complaints fade away, only time will tell if Gillette will benefit from such things as strengthened brand loyalty/reputation, increased sales, improved recruitment/retention, and other long-term effects related to taking a stand.  

Regardless of the stance, I see the campaign as being strongly executed. Gillette acted boldly – they decided to tackle a sensitive and controversial topic, and lead the way in starting a conversation for how to drive change. Gillette also remained aligned with its parent company’s purpose. When talking about their impact, P&G states: “It’s simple. We want to lead the charge in doing the right thing. Our goal is to use every opportunity we have — no matter how small — to set change in motion. To be a force for good and a force for growth. For you, for the world, and for every generation to come.” This belief undoubtedly fueled the Gillette campaign and is the same fuel that stoked P&G’s other notable campaigns including  #LikeAGirl and Panteen Strong Is Beautiful. Lastly, the campaign was authentic. This was far from an attempt at bandwagoning on a hot topic. P&G conducted research on the topic — surveying more than 1,000 US men and women, secured partnerships with nonprofits like The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and committed to a three-year commitment of supporting other nonprofits that are working “to help men of all ages achieve their personal best.” While Gillette executed the act of ‘taking a stand’ with the launch of the campaign, there is still a lot of work for the company. Gillette will need to continually reinforce, defend, and communicate to its audiences why it took this stance and how it relates back to its values and mission.

It should be called out here that while the implementation and action of Gillette taking a stand was overall executed well, it still does not negate the accompanying risk versus reward dilemma that the brand had to face when deciding on the validity and worthiness of greenlighting the campaign. Regardless of how controversial or groundbreaking a topic a brand wishes to address, deep and thoughtful consideration must be made regarding the long-term outcome and value to stakeholders.

P&G clearly and boldly made their decision.

-Nathan Sanfaçon
Strategist at thinkPARALLAX

Lovely Hanoi: Where Old & New Collide: Pat’s PARALLAXploration

As a first-timer to Asia, Hanoi seemed the perfect pick for my PARALLAXploration: manageable, not overly-touristy, and with a rich culture and history. For four days I immersed myself in this chaotic yet charming capital, with its tree-lined streets and French colonial architecture. The streets of Hanoi are sensory overload –  colorful shops, flowers, and lanterns everywhere, the ubiquitous low plastic bright blue stools that clutter the sidewalks outside storefronts and pubs, non-stop beep-beeps from countless scooters clogging the streets from every direction, and delicious smells wafting from street vendors’ tiny makeshift grills. Old and new collide everywhere. It’s common to see a rural woman in traditional clothing and the classic conical hat selling fruit or vegetables from her bike, right smack in front of a hipster coffee bar or swanky spa. High-rise office buildings inone neighborhood compete with temples dating back almost a 1,000 years in another — tradition and history still have a grip thankfully.

My first morning I woke up quite early expecting to find deserted streets as I went on a search for coffee at 6am. As I approached the renowned Hoan Kiem Lake, I noticed the street had been blocked off. I turned the corner to see literally hundreds of Hanoians of all ages taking part in various dance, tai chi, or exercise groups. This went on for blocks – group after group, some in matching uniforms, doing everything from line dances (yes, the Macarena is alive and well in Hanoi), to hip-hop aerobics, ballroom dancing, or Vietnamese Zumba right there in the street, at the crack of dawn. I later learned this is a daily occurrence from 6:00 to 7:00am sharp, as Hanoians are a very disciplined bunch. Once the clock strikes seven, roadblocks are removed, and the nonstop scooter insanity ensues for the day.

My days in Hanoi were spent visiting the Ethnology Museum and the Women’s Museum, eating amazingly fresh (and cheap) food, and spending countless hours walking the Old Quarter, where each of the 36 streets is dedicated to a specific trade or product. I spent a day with 20-year-old An from Hanoi Kids, a student-run organization that offers tours to English-speaking visitors in exchange for practicing their English. An gave me a fascinating glimpse of the city from a young woman’s eyes and a real window into Vietnamese life and culture, still very patriarchal, old-fashioned and full of traditions and beliefs.

I spent two nights on an eight-cabin junk boat cruise of Ha Long Bay, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site about three hours from Hanoi with dramatic limestone karsts jutting out of emerald green water. This was a nice departure from the bustle of the city. I toured caves and a pearl farm, hiked, kayaked, and visited one of the remaining working floating fishing villages which completely blew me away.

My six-day PARALLAXploration flew by, but this part of the world left an indelible mark on my heart – not simply because of its stunning natural beauty, mouthwatering cuisine, or rich history and traditions  – but because of its people. No matter what social strata, Hanoians seem to have a good outlook on life. Life is simpler and slower-paced, and the focus is on family and friends.

As a solo female traveler, I thought I’d be on edge in Southeast Asia. Reality: I felt safer there than I do in my urban San Diego neighborhood. The Hanoians I came across were a respectful and incredibly kind bunch. On my last day, a front desk person at my hotel noticed I was limping from a slight ankle sprain the night before. She insisted on walking with me (slowly) several blocks to the nearest pharmacy so she could translate and make sure I got proper medication. That was a typical gesture.

Overall, my PARALLAXploration was a bit of a reset for me personally – a reminder to slow down, really see things, and appreciate, even consider, a different outlook or way of doing things. That’s the cool thing about travel – nothing breaks down intellectual barriers and preconceived notions faster than being in a new place or culture. But perhaps most important of all, my time in Hanoi was a reminder that now more than ever, a little civility and gratitude go a long way.

Megan PARALLAXploration – Utah

If you’re given the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world, how would you choose your destination? I found the initial proposition slightly overwhelming, but had one substantial factor that reduced the radius of my potential travel destination: a baby girl, who arrived in mid-April. Knowing that Maeve would be joining me on the trip, I decided this was a great opportunity to explore my own backyard. We packed up the car (with far more gear than I ever thought possible) and headed south to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

I live in Utah, where nearly two-thirds of the state is (currently) public land. We are lucky to have five national parks, seven national monuments/sites, six national forests and 44 state parks. As an outdoor enthusiast and someone who cares deeply about the environment, public land is an issue close to my heart. Thus, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to seek out some of these beautiful landscapes and introduce my five-week-old daughter to our country’s national parks.

After a five hour drive into the desert, I unpacked our bags in Springdale on the edge of Zion National Park. The park consists primarily of a canyon valley, which was carved out by the Virgin River. It’s towering red walls – which average 2,000 feet deep – are a wonderful juxtaposition to the green oasis along the valley floor and river banks.

The majority of the hikes and classic Zion viewpoints are found in this canyon, which is accessed by a very user-friendly shuttle service during the peak months of March through November. The shuttle was established in 2000 and transported an estimated 6.3 million visitors in 2017 alone – think about the amount of traffic and pollution these shuttles eliminate each year! Traveling with an infant, I was especially grateful for the shuttles as it eliminated the need for a car seat and multiple transfers between car seat and carrier.

For the next day and a half, Maeve and I hopped from trail to trail with the help of the shuttle. While I was disappointed I couldn’t go on the infamous Angel’s Landing or The Narrows hikes (both trails with high consequence terrain) with Maeve, we got to experience the full length and beauty of the canyon. Whenever it started to heat up too much, we’d head for the river, finding cooler temperatures and shade among the cottonwood trees and brisk water (a rarity if you’re familiar with the other Utah national parks like Arches and Canyonlands). With its shuttle, shade, mix of easy/moderate trails available and amenities available in Springdale, I would highly recommend Zion National Park for anyone traveling with kiddos!

The drive from Zion to Bryce was stunning and crossed a variety of landscapes – we went from rock formations that were reminiscent of Mars, to wide open ranchlands and ultimately ended up in a high alpine desert. Expecting more hot desert landscapes, I was surprised to enter the park at an elevation around 7,600 feet, surrounded by pine trees. Also, surprising was how abruptly the forest dropped into an expansive basin covered with thousands of hoodoos. Take a quick three-minute walk in the forest outside the lodge, and suddenly the ground disappears beneath you. Hoodoos, which are skinny spires of rock created by “frost wedging,” create a maze before you. Nowhere else in the world has as many hoodoos as Bryce National Park – it’s quite the sight!

There is a perimeter trail that follows the edge of the basin and provides awe-inspiring views from the top, which is where Maeve and I spent the majority of our time. Since this trail was easy to access from the parking lot and lodge, there was a steady stream of visitors from tour buses. While the crowds can be overwhelming and oftentimes frustrating, I kept reminding myself that everyone was there to appreciate these public lands. By experiencing and learning about these delicate landscapes, my hope is that more people will become passionate about protecting them.

It was a challenge to travel with a brand new baby, but doing it on my own felt empowering. I know Maeve won’t remember this trip, but it still felt so special to share these beautiful and protected lands with her – just the two of us. My husband and I are determined to bring her up with an appreciation for the environment and wild spaces. Might as well start them young!

Brianna PARALLAXploration – Azores

My travel bucket list is quite extensive and typically grows every month.  

My passion for traveling was ignited after a semester studying abroad in Beijing, China.   While all my friends chose to explore Europe, I enrolled at the University of International Business and Economics, in the heart of Beijing not knowing another student.  Asia completely fascinated me, and for this reason when my husband, a US Marine, got orders to Guam, a US territory in the Pacific, I was thrilled! Our two years overseas allowed me the opportunity to explore several other countries in the Pacific beyond China.

It’s funny looking at our family travel map.  The red indicates places I’ve traveled, the blue my husband and the stripped flags, where we’ve traveled together.  Red flags cover various Asian countries, while blue is spread throughout Europe.

So when I was tasked with the difficult decision to choose a location for my PARALLAXploration, I knew I wanted to venture beyond Asia, but wasn’t entirely certain for where I’d go alone.    

While catching up on my weekly Travel+Leisure newsletter (guilty pleasure of mine to daydream about my next trip) I came across an article titled “The Azores Aren’t the ‘Next Iceland’ – And That’s Exactly Why You Should Go”.  After reading the article, I added yet another spot to my growing list and penned it in, right at the top. The Azores sounded like the perfect spot for my next adventure. Rated the top destination for eco-tourism, with a rich culture, great food, warm weather and filled with outdoor activities, it sounded like my perfect paradise.   After wrapping up a big project a work, I knew I wanted some relaxation, but it’s not my nature to sit poolside, drink mai tai’s and nap all day. The Azores provides that perfect balance! You can hike a challenging trail to then relax in warm hot springs in the middle of a jungle, with few tourists around.

Rather than setting out a detailed itinerary (like I often do listed out by the hour), I challenged my type A self to just wing my trip.  I planned for 5 full days in Sao Miguel, the largest island in the Azores, chose a few hotels throughout the island, rented a car (a must while visiting the Azores), bought a plane ticket and just went with no real plans in mind.

If you have the opportunity to visit the Azores, I highly recommend going, and going soon!  One month before my trip, Delta opened up the first domestic non-stop route from New York. The four and a half hour flight only flies to Sao Miguel three times a week.  During my trip, I rarely came across another American and felt the authenticity and true beauty that remains intact, due to the limited tourism (that will most likely change in the coming years as the awareness of the Azores grows).  

I could go on about the countless reasons for why I love the Azores, but I’ll let my photos do the talking.

I decided in order to see as much of the Island as I could, to divide the island into sections.  Even though Sao Miguel is fairly small (it takes about 2 hours to drive the entire island that is 293 square miles), there’s so much to do and see in each unique town.  

Situated on three tectonic plates, there are 3 active volcanoes on Sao Miguel.  Each is distinctly beautiful. The volcanoes have erupted five times in the last 500 years.   

Having visited several other archipelago islands, I was surprised by how clean the island was!  I rarely came across any trash and all the buildings and roads are well maintained.

Farming and agriculture are one of the main industries in the Azores.  Cows are everywhere. I even heard the ratio of cows to people is 2:1 (with a population of 140,000)

If you’re a lover of the water, the Azores are for you.  There are countless activities from diving, surfing, cliff jumping, sailing and even canyoning, something I had never heard of before, and wish I could have experience in the Azores… next time!

There are hot springs everywhere!  

The Azores are home to a 1/3 of the oceans cestaceans (whales and dolphins).  For my volunteer part of my trip, I met with the owner of the islands largest tour company to talk about how they’re educating visitors on sustainable animal watching and their impact on the island.

A famous cuisine of the Azores, Cozido das Furnas is made by combining meats and vegetables in a metal container and submerging it underground for 7 hours.  The result, a delicious dinner feast!

Traveling to another country without a detailed itinerary and companion would typically make me anxious.  Instead, I discovered a new way to travel. I loved how each day brought unexpected plans and allowed me to spontaneous pull off to the side of the road, and just be present in nature.  I wasn’t rushing to my next spot on my list and felt that I was able to experience the true beauty of the small island in a new way.