A month ago, Paris hosted the first European Sustainable Brands conference during a volatile time for the region; the grassroots Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement protesting high taxes and economic inequality in the French capital, young people from the Youth Strike 4 Climate movement organizing protests in various UK cities and the disastrous fire at Notre Dame cathedral bringing modern philanthropy back to the debate table. With over 3,000 attendees representing a mix of entrepreneurs, start-ups, non-profits, and brand managers of large companies, it was an inspiring and refreshing experience. The conference brought about several bold statements in which leading companies were frank in telling the audience they don’t have everything figured out and still have a long way to go in their sustainability journey.
Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s CEO, struck a bold tone that resonated with the audience and speakers, urging brands to “be bold or die” and challenged companies to not only take their corporate purpose seriously, but to consider how brand activism can be a recipe for changing consumers’ behaviors towards a more sustainable world. Faber stated that one of the big changes they are rolling out at Danone is “how to re-empower people, (…) how to authorize and encourage people to disrupt the way they think and the way they think they are authorized to think.” Faber’s remarks were the start of a consistent theme at the conference: How companies can and should engage and empower consumers to take part in their brands’ sustainability journey.
Importance of the local narrative and a bottom-up approach
Joanna Yarrow leads IKEA Group’s work to inspire and enable 1 billion people to live better lives within the limits of the planet by 2030. During a “Home Hub” session, she emphasized the importance of the local narrative and a bottom-up approach to reach this sustainability goal. The company partnered with GlobeScan to survey over 14,000 adults across 14 countries and conduct 24 qualitative focus groups with the goal of understanding what every day consumers think about climate change, what actions they are taking to reduce their own impact on the environment, and what can serve as motivators to enable people to take courageous climate action. The results can be found in Climate Action Starts at Home, a report that identifies principles to note when engaging with customers on climate action. For a company that operates 355 stores in 29 markets, over 800 million yearly store visits, and sees 2.1 billion visits to IKEA.com, acknowledging everyday consumer perspectives on how to make sustainable and healthy living affordable, attractive, and accessible for as many people as possible can truly make a difference in the achievement of an ambitious sustainability goal.
Consumers integrating zero waste in purchasing decisions
Tom Szaky, CEO of Terracycle, and Virginie Helias, Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Chief Sustainability Officer, took the stage to discuss Loop, a reusable packaging platform that allows consumers to integrate zero waste in their purchasing decisions while also improving their user experience. As explained by Szaky, Loop uses a “milkman” model, where products are delivered in high-quality packaging that can be refilled and returned multiple times. Under P&G’s Ambition 2030 goal, Loop tackles key principles under the Brand 2030 Criteria but also reflects the role that partnerships and collaboration play when brands and company-wide initiatives want to raise responsible consumption to the next level.
Sharing power and decision making with citizens
Jean-Louis Missika, Deputy Mayor of Paris, and Elisabeth Laville, Founder and CEO at Utopies, acknowledged multiple ways in which cities are a starting point for brands to upscale positive impact and to involve consumers. Missika highlighted the participatory budget project that invited Parisians to propose and design local projects for the city. “It is a way of sharing the power but also the decision to do things – the overwhelming votes towards ‘greening’ the city is a good indicator of what is important for citizens,” stated Missika. Laville stated that brands can’t limit themselves to selling products, consumers now want experiences – for retailers, this has meant turning stores into community hubs. She also introduced the concept of ‘brand urbanism’ to implement solutions at the local level despite being a global brand.
The consistent message of the importance of putting consumers at the center helped push the audience to seize ideas that create value in non-traditional ways while having sustainability as a main driver. It was also clear that ease, attractiveness, affordability, innovation, and convenience are now part of the marketing reinvention that brands are adapting to not only reach a wide consumer basis but also achieve sustainability goals that have a long-term and positive impact on society.