COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

Sustainable Brands: journey to a new business model

On occasion, something amazing takes place, changing minds, altering our sense of balance, and leading those undertaking a revolution into a fruitful state of mind. The Sustainable Brands conference, this year entitled “SB13: From Revolution to Renaissance,” is just such an event. (SustainableBrands.com)

For those interested in advancing the concept of sustainability, changing how business is done, using energy more wisely, profiting from frugality and adopting a business plan of reduce, reuse and recycle to enhance the bottom line while elevating our quality of life, this is the event for you. You will encounter powerful new people, opportunities and ideas, plain and simple.

While Sustainable Brands events occur throughout the year in various locations worldwide, the conference has scheduled its flagship event to return next year to San Diego.

This year, the wonderful Paradise Point Resort and Spa in Mission Bay served as the event venue, with a remarkable level of care, effort and attention to detail exhibited by the staff of that hotel for the needs of conference attendees.

A long list of sponsors support this effort, ranging from BMW i, BASF, Citizen Group, Saatchi & Saatchi, Coca-Cola, Target, Earth911 through a multitude to “Me to We,” a company that offers “socially conscious experiences and products.”

The Sustainable Brands amalgam of ideas, people, approaches and efforts is unusual, especially as gauged by the comments of participants, many stalwarts professionally advancing or supporting real sustainability within substantial business organizations.

More importantly, it requires special people to create circumstances and a context — the appropriate infrastructure, as it were — capable of altering a mindset or causing the trajectory of business to amend itself through a different vision of leadership or purpose.

Such changes can initiate from willfully counterpoised forces or from less flagrant assaults in the form of factual persuasion, jest, artistry or the patient indulgence of opposing views. Indeed, it’s good to see how the other half thinks.

This latter approach is that of KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, the founder of Sustainable Brands, and her extraordinary team of people who have adopted a gentle yet purposeful journey toward a new paradigm. By juxtaposing point with counterpoint and exposing those living in rarified strata of society to the larger world of ordinary people or the poor, opportunities for a better world present themselves.

An earthy, good-natured combination of powerful communication and logistical virtuosity sets KoAnn apart. An experienced businesswoman, she and her board of advisers are tackling one of the most difficult tasks we collectively face: how to transform an extractive, growth economy into something better.

As a visionary, KoAnn is gentle, soft-spoken, thoughtful and well-intentioned, yet she appears driven to make things perfect for those who attend her conferences. To that end, the break-out sessions, conversations, speakers and participants are so provocative and insightful it almost defies conventional thinking that so many different views can share a stage in good natured, respectful dialogue on weighty matters. If only our political leaders could take a page from this event, how much better off we would be.

Rather than an accident, at its core her approach suggests that businesses that seek to remain relevant, to survive and to flourish in the connected world of networks and social media should consider and care about both their adverse actions and the opportunities good action can offer their brand reputation, and therefore their bottom line.

KoAnn’s Sustainable Brands taps into the powerful notion that it is not pure altruism that drives good acts, but that a fraying society can mend through the individual acts of millions of informed customers who care and vote with their dollars.

The insightful premise that defending a brand name can radically change corporate behavior leads to an exploration of what people think, what people say, what people actually do, and a process of change that, if done with conviction and soul, can make all the difference in the world.

In her introduction to the event, after citing many examples of challenges and positive change, KoAnn writes: “Taken in aggregate, it’s easy to see why we’re calling this the advent of a 21st-century renaissance built around our need to disconnect business growth from negative environmental and social impacts.”

As themes go, “From Revolution to Renaissance” tops my list. It portends how the creative and artistic efforts foundational to communication, advertising, sales, product design and persuasion can be harnessed for a better world. Therein lays the struggle.

Finally, a hundred fantastic stories can be told based on the fascinating efforts and successes of various SB 13 conference attendees, and more about that later, but one that jumped out was that of Unilever, maker of Dove products. Their efforts spring from what we reasonably yearn for from any company: top executives who genuinely care about people and act accordingly. That underpins a sustainable brand.

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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