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From Revolution to Renaissance?

A protest against the Keystone pipeline in February in San Francisco | Image credit: SF Gate

I had occasion this week to be in San Diego for Sustainable Brands '13, where I offered opening remarks on June 4, the first full day of the conference. Conclusions from Changing Tack, the final output of The Regeneration Roadmap, were top of mind as I did so.

Sustainable Brands’ theme this year was “From Revolution to Renaissance.” I love the implications behind the words. To me, it suggests that we have broken through into a creative, hyper-productive phase of sustainable development progress and the role brands will play. But, as in the title above, I put the theme to the conference audience as a question — not to query where we are going, but to allow us to step back and look at where we are on the journey, and to consider how we can chart a path forward. And, based on Changing Tack’s conclusions, I suggested that we need to incite still far more people toward revolution at the same time as we push forward the renaissance.

Things are getting better

There is good news. Forty years since the founding of the modern sustainable development (SD) movement, there are many signs of progress. Sustainable development as a concept has mainstreamed.

Companies are getting hyper-efficient. Scarcity is shaping business planning and investment, and eco-efficiency targets are being expressed in absolute and science-based terms instead of relative ones. Think of Walmart and its ambition to reduce waste going to landfill to zero, and Ford, where future product plans are tied to keeping rising temperatures due to climate change at or below 2 degrees C. A handful of companies such as Kingfisher and BT in the UK are even aiming beyond zero, aspiring to ‘net positive,’ which will require engaging and activating their customers and value chain partners.

There is policy momentum. Though more regional than national or international, it is real. For example, while Europe’s flagship Emissions Trading System falters, new and energetic carbon trading systems, taxes and permits are emerging in jurisdictions from California to British Columbia and Quebec to South Korea, China and Australia.

Cities have emerged as critical sustainable development labs. Look at Chicago’s plan to repave its network of alleyways with permeable pavement. This will save money on traditional water infrastructure, and the city will benefit from cooling on hot days when the water stored under the alleys evaporates, lowering ambient temperature.

And there is tremendous energy in civil society. People are being drawn to fight for sustainability  to demand it. Think of the Keystone Pipeline protests. We are blessed with what I think is the most energized environmental movement in decades.

Things are getting worse

But there is bad news, too. The environmental movement has reason to protest. And there are social and economic challenges also.

If we are honest in our assessment of all the progress being made by companies, policymakers, cities and the rest, it’s just not enough in aggregate. Metrics on CO2 emissions, biodiversity, water, demographics and equity paint this picture. CO2 emissions are rising, cresting 400 ppm earlier this year. Biodiversity is declining. Fresh water access is more and more constrained. And as population ticks towards 9 or 10 billion by mid-century, there is growing inequity, with the worst of it often located where the population is growing fastest. This is historically a recipe for instability and unrest.

Couple all this with an uncertain economic outlook, and it suggests that the revolution may not yet be over, even though there is evidence that a renaissance has begun.

A key part of the lesson is that even the existing best practices aren’t connecting, scaling and replicating fast enough. Sustainable development is a system problem, beyond what any one institution can do alone. It requires collective action and/or change to underlying system conditions in order to guarantee future societies and ecosystems the opportunity to thrive.

Changing Tack

With governments still falling short in terms of providing effective guidance on the national and international stage, Changing Tack concludes that companies, alone and in combination with other actors, face both the expectation and opportunity to chart the route forward on sustainable development in the near term, and that the question of the moment is how.

Changing Tack suggests that it will be integrated and systemic approaches that turn things  and that companies can lead on sustainable development and improve the resilience of their own businesses by improving and better integrating performance across six key leadership attributes: Vision, Goals, Offer, Brand, Transparency and Advocacy.

If Vision states a company’s ambition, and Goals express the waypoints on the journey, Offer calls on companies to evolve their products, services and business models to deliver on that vision for sustainability and a better future. This requires developing products and services that are the optimal combination of “different” and “better.”

By our definition, better brings cleaner, more efficient, more socially conscious products and services such as concentrated laundry detergents and energy efficient appliances to market, while different entails fundamentally new approaches to value creation like we are seeing in the nascent sharing economy. We see a need for plenty of both.

We need every company and every industry to push the boundaries of better and different, to help make the case for change, and then spur the innovation needed to deliver it. Please join us on June 13 at 11am ET for the Changing Tack launch webcast to continue the discussion.


Based in San Francisco, Mark has 15+ years experience in key leadership positions in the sustainability field. Mark possesses expertise in sustainability strategy and implementation as well as the systems, governance, public policy, accountability and stakeholder engagement aspects of this… [Read more about Mark Lee]