Last month, the thinkPARALLAX team headed to San Diego, CA for Sustainable Brands ‘21. Being the first major in-person sustainability conference since the pandemic began, we were excited for a week of nerding out on ESG strategy and communication with some 600 other corporate sustainability professionals. We shared ideas for creating a regenerative future and amplifying impact. We listened to seminal voices in the sustainability movement, from Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway to a cohort of youth activists from Extinction Rebellion. We published our new Insights paper on how to get the most out of materiality, which you can read here. In case you missed it, here are some key takeaways from the conference:
1. Generation Z is bred for sniffing out greenwashing
If you thought Millennials were passionate about sustainability, Generation Z is taking it to a whole new level. Throughout the conference, various rising young leaders spoke out on their frustration on the lack of corporate and political action to address the climate crisis and other sustainability challenges. During a session, PepsiCo explained how when it switched Aquafina from plastic to aluminum, Gen Z customers reached out asking: “But what's the LCA on aluminum?!” The younger generation is knowledgeable about the nitty gritty of sustainability. Today’s youth, and tomorrow’s leaders, are demanding change, have the savvy to sniff out greenwashing, and are dedicated to holding organizations accountable to their ESG and sustainability commitments.
2. Young investors emphasize ESG
Young people are ushering in a new ‘Era of Sustainability’ in which consumers ask — and expect — that companies help improve the environment. These sustainability and societal changes are spurring a new generation of conscious investors: almost half of young people aged 18 to 34 plan to make ESG investment by 2025, and 30 percent are willing to accept lower returns on an investment if it has a positive social or environmental impact. When asked what companies ought to do to lead on ESG, one 16-year-old activist shared: "Don't try to lead. Listen and follow.” True leadership requires listening to the voices of those around you, and today’s voices are speaking a resounding message: the time for action is now.
3. We must draw sustainability inspiration from nature
When seeking inspiration for sustainability solutions, we needn’t look further than the nature that surrounds us. As highlighted by speakers at a panel hosted by Biomimicry 3.8, nature’s brilliant, built-in, eons-old design provides us with new tools for problem-solving. After all, “nature is not only sustainable — it’s highly resilient.”
Regeneration requires place-based design: solutions that are tailored to local communities and ecosystems. Nature teaches us that regenerative solutions can’t be generalized, but must be created strategically to suit the needs of specific locations and contexts. While this work is more difficult, the results are more resilient. When we begin to see facets of nature as creators, innovators, and artists — not something separate from us, but something we are a part of— we unlock doors to innovative and long-lasting solutions.
4. Acknowledge the problem, focus on solutions
While we face a constellation of pressing issues to solve this century, focusing on the negative can be paralyzing. In other words: it’s more effective to focus on inspiring action with solutions. Pamela Wilhelms, owner of Wilhelms Consulting Group, illustrated this point with an anecdote about her father, a site manager, who would tell her: “The environmentalists came to me with problems, but the developers came to me with solutions.” Drawing awareness to issue areas is important. But as a community of changemakers, we must double down our efforts to create effective, actionable plans to address those issues.
5. We will go further together
The world’s sustainability challenges are too much for any one organization or individual to take on alone. By partnering with stakeholders — such as suppliers, NGOs, consultancies — we can ask: what impact can we make together? What story do we each want to tell, and how can we create it in unison? This idea of co-creation invites us to observe, collaborate, and experiment with ideas to dream of and implement new solutions. When dreaming big, Joann Garbin, Director of Innovation at Microsoft, advises us to ask “what if” and “how might” questions. And while discussions help convey information, opportunities for experiential learning help others tangibly feel how we can do things differently.