“How might our businesses serve our humanity, and how might our humanity serve our businesses?” (Raphael Bemporad, BBMG speaking at Sustainable Brands, London)
Sustainable Brands finally came to London, in November, a long way from its most recent home in balmy San Diego. The organisers may not have brought us sunshine but the event did bring a strong call for more humanity, heart, purpose, bravery and honesty in brands and business.
In an era when there is a lack of trust in many institutions, and an alarming deficit of trust in business, this is easier said than done. Despite some committed businesses being on the right track with appropriately ambitious leadership, goals & metrics, perceptions of the business sector as a whole remain low. Perhaps it is time for business to get a little more emotional and to show a little more of its soul. To get a bit braver and more honest about the scale of the challenges it, and we as society, face and connect with its stakeholders with the heart and not just the head. Here are four thoughts inspired by Sustainable Brands, London, which may just remind companies how to do that.
1. Uncomfortable leadership
Leaders need to become more comfortable at being open and honest when they don’t know how they are going to reach a goal or when they don’t have the answer to sustainability problem.
The challenges of our lifetime – such as climate, resource depletion, poverty and inequality – are intractable, complex and interconnected; there are few quick wins or easy solutions. As David North, previously of Tesco and now at the Sustainable Consumption Institute put it “we have to get a bit brave and dwell on problems for which we don’t have the answers…try and get comfortable with not having the answer to a question”. He believes that companies reach too quickly for solutions and that developing a one-year strategy is an appropriate reaction to challenges such as climate change.
Gail Klintworth, CSO of Unilever, spoke of how the company doesn’t know how it will reach some of its goals. She expressed a need for leadership that enables people to feel comfortable with an uncertain outcome. Alongside this is the need for leaders to get more comfortable with embracing failure. Tata recognises the importance of failure in fostering better innovation and has an annual prize for the best failed idea to encourage people to take more risks, and fail successfully.
2. Unlock the female voices
Gail Klintworth of Unilever also spoke of the need for leadership that is values-led, heartfelt and embraces partnerships. Attributes traditionally associated with more feminine leadership styles.
SustainAbility council member, Kellie A. McElhaney recently co-authored a report Women Create a Sustainable Future that explores the potential relationship between women leaders and sustainable business practices. The report concludes ‘this is not about simply having a woman present at the table…this is about women being actively engaged in the process to renew trust in business and to help correct the unsustainable paths we are currently charging down’. Companies need to work harder at unlocking the female voices in the workplace.
3. Demonstrate humility & emotion
At SustainAbility we have advocated for many years the importance of getting the tone of the CEO statement in a corporate sustainability report right. This is the place to acknowledge challenging dilemmas or to be honest about the difficult trade-offs that sustainability sometimes requires. The tone here is particularly important. Nike is a good example of a CEO letter that sets out the challenges the company faces, the lessons it is learning as well an acknowledgement that there are no easy solutions.
Trewin Restorick, chief executive of Global Action Plan recently wrote on Guardian Sustainable Business that the language around sustainability has become too sanitised, “carbon reduction targets are set with little connection to the global imperative to act” and cautions that “the removal of emotion could create complacency”
Marks & Spencer has a practical approach to sustainability with its robust Plan A supported by over 180 commitments. Despite doing a better job than most on engaging its stakeholders on the critical issues, the company spoke at the conference about the need to make more an emotional connection between the plan and its own staff to get the internal buy-in that is needed.
4. Brands with purpose
While we may have heard a little too much from Unilever (presenting sponsor of the conference) they do have much to say about putting purpose at the heart of a brand. Its Chief Marketing Officer spoke of how Unilever is re-teaching itself to be more empathetic. It may sound obvious, but consumers are real people, with real lives and struggles and challenges, that are often far greater than our own. The world is bumping up my world through rising energy and food prices, water scarcity, unpredictable weather. The brands that help consumers better meet their needs in the face of these issues will be the ones that succeed.
To conclude as the inimitable Paul Gilding put it in the plenary session “the purpose of an economy is to make our lives better and putting purpose centre stage [of a brand or business] is the answer to sustainability”.
This article originally appeared on the Sustainable Brands website