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.”