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Socially Responsible Business

Branding a Revolution

Q&A with KoAnn Skrzyniarz of Sustainable Brands.

People have been taking to the streets—and to the marketplace—in growing numbers, signaling a fundamental shift in what consumers expect from business. Whether it’s the 99 percent of the Occupy movement protesting social and economic inequalities, Citigroup shareholders rejecting exorbitant executive pay, or everyday consumers voting with their pocketbooks and choosing to go local and organic—the business landscape is changing.

KoAnn Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands, sees a business revolution happening. I recently asked her how strategic branding could redefine the value of business.

Nayelli Gonzalez: We continue to witness social and economic unrest bubbling up around the world—and this year’s rallying cry for the Sustainable Brands conference is “The Revolution will be Branded.” What does “revolution” mean to you, and what’s the connection between the 99 percent and sustainability?

KoAnn Skrzyniarz: We are in the midst of a global revolution driven by a growing understanding of the impact of business and consumption on the future health and wellbeing of our lives, our families, and our communities. The revolution is one in which individuals and societies around the world are recognizing the need for a change in business as usual. They are asking business to lead the way to a better future—and are beginning to demonstrate their commitment to reward brands that do better by increasing their loyalty and support for those brands. Consumers are increasingly recognizing their power to affect change. Brands will need to show how they are helping lead the way toward an economic system that serves society as a whole, or risk becoming irrelevant. Brands that demonstrate this kind of shared value will benefit by taking a leadership position in their industry.

Why do you think sustainable business leaders are equipped to lead this movement?

In the case of sustainability, these leaders have a unique vantage point from which to track many of the global macroeconomic and resource issues that are at the heart of the sustainability revolution today. Because of their perspective and vast resources, they can be first to both deeply understand future problems and to contemplate how to turn these problems into business opportunities. They have access to economists who are looking at risks related to commodity price fluctuations and climate change-related disruptions to their business. They get it. This is why we see CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies—Lee Scott of Walmart, Paul Polman of Unilever, Jeffrey Imelt of GE, and others—standing up and committing to setting bold goals for driving growth, while dramatically reducing environmental impact and improving service to society. These business leaders are actually key to driving the sustainability revolution because even the simplest of their commitments have the potential to create massive, scaled impact. The trickle-down-effect of some of the changes Wal-mart is making, for example, is enormous.

Sustainable products and services are viewed as better for society, the economy, and the environment, yet sustainable purchasing across industries is not yet the norm. What will it take for all businesses to offer sustainable products and services to consumers—and for consumers to pay for those options?

That’s one of the central questions of our community. How do we build bridges that support companies that want to add more sustainable options in the market? If a company commits to launching a more sustainable solution and nobody buys it, it can be a challenge—we have to figure this out, but it’s a challenge. It requires re-establishing trust in brands among a consumer base that has come to feel a bit used. And it requires finding ways to educate people about complex topics, while not beating people over the head and preaching to them. Narrative is certainly becoming more and more important in the way businesses communicate sustainability, and there’s a need to become more adept at telling stories, and creating dialogue between consumers and brands—and telling a good story in a way that’s interesting and easy to grasp. Some brands are doing this really well.

This year, for example, Patagonia has gotten attention with its Common Threads campaign. The reason the company pulled it off with credibility is that it have a history of commitment to sustainability issues. They were not seen as disingenuous. It’s a challenge for other companies to get there—it takes time. Chipotle, Airbnb, Method, and LUSH, all of which will also be at this year’s conference, are other great examples of companies that communicate sustainability to people in fun and delightful ways—ways that lead people to think differently without making them feel guilty.

What’s your advice for professionals who work in the social good and sustainability branding space?

My biggest piece of advice for professionals in this space is to engage in more cross-pollination of thinking. We still tend to view social good and business as two ends of the spectrum, and we need to eliminate that. It surprises me that we’re not farther along on this path. My hope is that in the coming years, as part of the re-boot of our economic systems for the future, we’ll see more “for purpose” organizations that are adept at creating and enjoying the rewards of creating real, meaningful value. Now that’s sustainable!

Things that add value in society aren’t always viewed as valuable in our world today—there’s something twisted and broken about that. We need to expect more accountability and results from nonprofits, and we need to value those businesses that can demonstrate a path toward sustainable value creation without the expectation of a 40x return to investors in 3 years. Our founding mission has been to be a ”bridge to better brands” by providing resources that help brands prosper, while leading the way to a better world. Just as brands/businesses need to become platforms for purpose, nonprofits need to be good brand builders too. Having more cross-pollination between the social good and nonprofit worlds, and the business world would be really valuable to both sides. We’re supporting this cross-pollination through our new CauseWay initiative, which will foster partnerships between brands and high-impact organizations—and we’re excited to see what great new impact comes out of that.

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