I am at my first Sustainable Brands Conference. After having written a couple of articles for SB and followed their activity via social media, I am excited to finally be at one of their acclaimed events. At what other venue are high profile CSR and sustainability experts coming together with social entrepreneurs and PR execs? It is truly a one of a kind experiment - to see how innovation, sustainability and branding can all fit together. Frankly the fit does not come naturally and it shows. I am used to participating in high brow, buttoned up sustainability discussions but this conference has been anything but. As Founder + CEO KoAnn Skrzyniarz has said multiple times, this event is not like the others. This one tests the limits, forces us to speak with each other honestly and asks tough questions. At times I have been a bit stunned by the frankness of the conversation, the lack of polish even, and the casual tone. I keep blaming it on this conference being in California where things are a bit more fluid. But I sense there's something bigger than that at play.
At last night's opening plenary, as the speakers asked us to close our eyes and visualize, use jazz hands to show support and challenge us to 'trust' each other, I had to ask others around me: "is this for real?" But then I considered that many people in the room weren't accustomed to seeing what I've seen when I've made field visits. They aren't used to the real stories that compel people to quit their jobs and start a new venture with the only outcome to be creating social impact. Perhaps they sit at a desk and tell stories but never get to see the story played out in real life. By encouraging the audience to visualize, to seek empathy in their conversations with others throughout the conference and challenging attendees to communicate a bit differently, maybe Sustainable Brands is indeed taking a different angle to the conference approach. Forcing us to be a bit uncomfortable with our surroundings, they are pointing out the unnatural fit among us in the room and encouraging us to make it work to better our planet.
Jo Confino of Guardian Sustainable Business, a well respected and highly coveted sustainability journalist, sat up on the podium this afternoon and said out loud "We are F_CKED" Check out the video here if you missed it. It was raw, honest, shocking and yet just what we needed. KoAnn was quizzing him on what is needed to "Change the Game" and without flinching he said we are just not there yet, we aren't doing enough, we don't have empathy, we aren't kind enough, we aren't struggling enough, we don't cry enough, we are F_CKED. Yes! Yes! Yes! All of the above. Watching Unilever's brilliant video on their Project Sunlight might make you pause, but it is not enough to make you act. KoAnn pressed Jo and other panelists Andrew Winston of Green to Gold (and now The Big Pivot) fame and Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia on what it will take us to act. We never truly got an answer.
Workshop sessions have been interesting. Most interesting for me was the session on the Responsible Entrepreneur with Michael Jones of Thrive Farmers, Lisa Curtis of Kuli Kuli, Matt Reynolds of Indigenous and others. Other sessions have been similar to many conferences I have attended where the experts just spend a lot of time talking to each other and at the rest of us. Networking is the highlight, per usual.
That said, I sense some potential here for Sustainable Brands to take CSR and Sustainability, not to mention social entrepreneurship and innovation to the next level. I don't quite know how they will surpass the status quo when it comes to these types of convenings but I sense Jo Confino is onto something. Let's start with the "We are F_CKED" situation and figure out how the hell we are going to get out of it. I think SB is trying to get us there. Their Advisory Council is made up of people I admire and respect and who I believe are committed to helping the CSR and sustainability community truly make the impact we all sense is possible. Thus while in California I will shrug my shoulders a bit at the almost awkward feel of the plenary sessions and the nearly forced attempt to help us all work together and believe that Sustainable Brands may really be a needed conduit to making our future bright.
I leave tomorrow night and will opine a bit more before making final conclusions about the worthiness of this event. I had heard mixed reviews before heading out here and can understand why. My gut tells me to stay committed to SB and the direction it is headed. Lord knows (and so does Jo Confino) that it can't get much worse.