I’ve been in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability for the last eleven years. The pace of change in the last year has been astonishing. While we’ve moved from climate change being the phrase-that-shall-not-be-named in the early days to it now being included in business risk analyses and an integral part of CDP and GRI reporting, the change that is the most significant is the expectation that brands and CEOs take a stand on social issues.
Im sitting here at my desk on a cold Friday night in January, settling paperwork for the new year and trying to get organized for the coming tax time. I’m my parents’ financial person and this means while they are living out their days in a memory care facility in Ohio, I am in California making sure their bills are paid and matters are in hand.
For me, that means logging into their gmail to make sure there are no missed yearend statements and continuing to unsubscribe from all the progressive, humanitarian causes and newsletters they subscribed to but never read anymore. It means checking the credit card statement and bank balance and then getting out my mom’s check book and files.
And then my throat tightens and tears prick. Because I see her handwriting in the checkbook ledger and remember what a stickler she was for balancing her checkbook every month. Even though she also checked her account online too. She had technology skills, she sure did. And I also see the cryptic notes written on scraps of paper in the files and on back pages of the ledger, on little post-it notes — reminders of passwords and what to do to login in, and what each account meant. Not your usual tips and tricks, but shards of thoughts from someone who was losing her ability to stay in charge — my mom’s favorite place to be.
I may be 3000 miles away, but who she is — and who she was — is right in front of me every day. Her memory loss. My loss. My memories.
Everything changes during the moment when you wake up, realize that things need to be better, and understand that you have a role to play in the story. Companies are beginning to understand that they must internalize and articulate a purpose beyond profit. This usually takes what Ray Anderson called his “spear in the chest” moment, when he saw the power/devastation industry can have on the world. He realized his life would never be the same. As a revolution of real change unfolds, what happens is a change of heart for the entire organizations.
The communications implications for this are significant. How a brand is understood and expressed must now reflect a deeper purpose. First, alignment around and commitment to that purpose must be created. The challenge is for businesses – who are facing growing activist consumers as well as employees – to clearly and credibly express a new dimension of their business. A dimension that is not held hostage to short term profitability but rather integrates service to greater good alongside financial well-being.
We as sustainability communicators understand the power of the narrative to help organizations’ achieve their goals. After more than 30 years, I see the role that communications plays in five distinct co-creation areas and believe that this is the core of what we – the storytellers of commerce — are working toward:
1. Establishing credibility. From branding initiatives to corporate reputation campaigns, brands are creating a new series of communications that provide the detailed transparency for telling a complex sustainability story. Truth-telling and hero’s journey are the themes here.
2. Removing barriers. There is a range of stakeholders whose buy-in is essential in successful sustainability implementation. Employees, supply chain, distribution partners, governments and NGOs, local communities must all become part of the team and be persuaded to set aside self-serving agendas and biases. A call to community is at the heart of this effort.
3. Accelerating acceptance. Clarity can speed goal attainment when players in the system understand how their contribution and connection contributes to success. Participation in a greater goal that is a both-and proposition is the key theme.
4. Operationalizing intention. Vision, heart, and purpose are all lofty concepts that need to come down to earth in order to gain real traction. The place where programs can break down is on the factory floor where those in charge of actually delivering progress on environmental or social impacts are left out of the process. Cross-functional teams are critical.
5. Empowering evangelists. Businesses now rely on a host of advocates who share the narrative – they tweet, post, like, share and rate. Everywhere you can read about how business as we know it has changed – that social media and the new connected customer require a new way of doing business. This means creating narratives that are distinct, sharable messages designed so that others can say-it-forward.
Co-created communications with stakeholders can only come from a strategic approach and the realization that it must be carefully constructed for every transaction. Sustainability communication gives people on all sides of the revolution a voice. And that beautifully expresses a change of heart.
The world is a big, beautiful place, ready for our elbows-deep immersion in complexity and the many facets of all we create, feel, and experience. It’s clear to me that this life is a (carnival) ride, an experience, a chosen story that we’ve all selected to have together — actually as one.
It’s important to be aware of as much as possible. To see, hear, smell, feel, taste, absorb, drink in every thing. Every moment is a miracle. Every connection to another is a deep gift. Finding our unique place, and our individual task/gift/purpose adds to a universal vibration and evolution. How amazing to be part of the collective experience of building, seeing, creating, evolving.
I can see all of this on a macro level. The challenge is how to bring this into the minute, small, intimate moments of each day, each encounter, each day. The struggle is to see every encounter or experience as part of this great wholeness.
We constantly strive to remember that the people we meet, our relationships, jobs, home and chores are as much a part of the magical, mystical experience of life as is the awareness that comes in meditation. How do I see the mundane as mystical? How can I remember that each moment I am alive is full of so much to see, feel, be?
This abundance awareness, remembered in stillness, is what I wish for all of us in the new year. We are living in a chaotic time, challenged by too many crises, suffering the proliferation of devices and distractions. Let’s remember to cut through the noise, really SEE each other, and revel in our shared, co-creative experience that is this one perfect life.
Every time I talk to clients or give new employees a presentation on our sustainability offering, I always start with this quote from KoAnn Skryzinyaz (CEO of Sustainable Brands) that describes how we define sustainability: “Transforming businesses to respect environmental limits while fulfilling social wants and needs has become an unparalleled platform for innovation on strategy, design, manufacturing and brand — offering massive opportunities to compete and to adapt in a rapidly evolving world.”
It’s sometimes challenging to find a good example of how innovation through a sustainability lens delivers strong brand relevance. Amazon’s recent announcement about its sustainability research project shows how linking your core business to solving environmental or social challenges well beyond the borders of your own company or sector shows us how it’s done. Quietly and in the background, Amazon’s expanding internal sustainability team has been working with its AWS (Amazon Web Services division) to offer a compelling solution set that will help tackle the challenge of climate change.
“The Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative leverages Amazon Web Services’ technology and scalable infrastructure to stage, analyze, and distribute data, and is a joint effort between the AWS Open Data and Amazon Sustainability teams. The AWS Open Data program already makes numerous datasets available for public use through its Registry of Open Data on AWS. Amazon’s Sustainability Team began collaborating with AWS last year to start warehousing the vast amounts of public data that describe our planet. The initiative identifies foundational data for sustainability and works closely with data providers like NOAA to stage their data in the AWS Cloud by giving them complete ownership and control over how their data is shared.
AWS ‘allows us to do things at scale that have not been done at scale before,’ says Josh Hacker, Co-founder of Jupiter Intel, which helps organizations prepare for climate change and weather risks. AWS customers, such as Sinergise, Intertrust, and OpenAQ, are increasing access to data by developing tools that help others access and use the open data on AWS.
According to Amazon, the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative will support AWS customers in their sustainability work so that innovators and researchers are supported with the data, tools, and technical expertise they need to move sustainability to the next level.”https://www.environmentalleader.com/2018/12/amazon-launches-sustainable-data-initiative-to-promote-sustainability-research-and-innovation/
Even as this initiative will help thousands of organizations prepare for, or mitigate, climate risk, it doesn’t absolve the company from additional leadership in transparency and disclosure – something that experts say will be required in the next 5-8 years. Based on a recent benchmarking, it’s clear that Amazon still does not share details about its global carbon footprint nor its environmental or social impact targets/goals, programs and results. No one knows what the full carbon footprint is for Amazon.
This project, however, is a strong commitment from one of the world’s largest data companies to use its core competency for good and benefit the planet and all its species — including humanity. In my way of thinking, we respect this innovation and keep pushing for transparency.
It’s funny that such a straightforward statement about my ability to run can still make me feel like I must be kidding myself or, at least, fooling everybody else. Because after almost nine years of running and training AND completing my first ever marathon, I still can’t quite internalize that I am an athlete. That I am a runner. That my sport of choice is endurance events. Maybe it’s because I started all of this soon after turning 50, after years of being the high school nerd, the college smoker, the doughnut-eating pregnant lady, the sedentary working mom.
Yet here I am, almost a decade of running, swimming, biking and multiple 5k, 10k, half marathons, several triathlons and a duathlon plus the aforementioned 26.2, still not quite sure I can own the moniker of Athlete.
What’s that about? I think it has to do with reconciling the self we created as an adolescent with the adult we are. Underneath all of our growing, learning, wisdom and life experiences — which accrue to a current sense of self — is the initial model we created once we began the individuation process. It’s kind of like comparing the final painting to the original sketch. There are similarities between the two versions but, because that initial raw sketch was your first attempt at getting the idea on paper, there is some truth that feels real in it even if the final version has changed substantially through constant adapting, layering and learning which has modified those first rough lines.
So it is with my sense of self as an athlete. There were no athletic role models in my childhood and adolescence. We were a cerebral family, interested in debates about the daily politic, doing well (perfect) in school and being accomplished. So I had never drawn athlete lines in my self portrait. Until I turned 50 and decided I could.