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Sustainability and Social Impact: Will it Lead Business Strategy in the Coming Years?

The author presenting alongside David Kiu, Unilever's VP Sustainable Business and Communications at SB'15 Kuala Lumpur. | Image Credit: Pranav Sethaputra

When I first heard of the Sustainable Brands conference from our friends at Forum For The Future - I couldn't wait to go to one of the events. Luckily for me, it wasn't long until they brought the event to Asia, kicking off in the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur. Even though some people look at conference events as a waste of time, I couldn't disagree more. Events like SB'15 Kuala Lumpur are an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded collaborators and to find new and inspiring case studies of business done they way it should be: taking into account our environment and well-being. It's all about making the most of your opportunities and enjoying the fresh perspectives.

Our enterprise Gone Adventurin' was asked to Chair an exciting session on "How Sustainability Can Help Brands and Employees #DiscoverPurpose," alongside David Kiu, the Vice President of Sustainable Business and Communications at Unilever. I couldn't wait.

When I first landed in Kuala Lumpur and arrived at the conference, I was blown away that the first booth I saw was everything Gone Adventurin' was founded on: adventure, great storytelling and positive social impact!

Media Prima had realized that inspiring documentary content is powerfully popular, and had started making many television series about volunteers going on big adventures to help society and charity organisations - I was amazed! But it wasn't just TV stations that had realized this.

Energy company Petronas also had a booth at the conference, which showcased their great storytelling skills. However, I was a bit disappointed that the focus of their social impact didn't really seem to be central to their business impact (i.e. environment). At Gone Adventurin', we always try to show brands how their impact should be core to their business, and not just Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or communications. However, any positive impact is a step in the right direction!

The theme for the conference was "How Now" - how everyone can make a conscious effort now, not just in the future, and how to make that happen. It was a very cool and pragmatic theme to choose! Yay action!

KoAnn Skrzyniarz, the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands, did a great opening keynote on "Why Sustainability is at the Heart of Future Success for Brands" which was an awesome kick off!

After a keynote from Petronas, the next speaker was Sajith Sivanandan from Google. Google does so much amazing work in sustainable innovation and social impact - it was cool to see them attend and share some thoughts. Next up was Media Prima, which I just loved.

Day 1 continued with lots of sharing of ideas and thoughts. I got to speak one-on-one with some awesome people, both from the business and communication side of things. One of my favorite learnings was from Pranav Sethaputra, Sustainability Consultant at MCI. He talked about the power of live events (...another reference to our business model! Awesome!) and community building.

When Chris Messer took the stage, he opened with my favorite slide from the conference, which pretty much sums up a lot of attitudes when it comes to real issues:

Chris Messer presents a slide depicting an ostrich with its head in the sand.
Image Credit: @GoneAdventurin on Twitter.

He went on to share some really inspiring stories, such as that Huggies Nature Made brand in Korea is "the first diaper to measure it's carbon footprint on the packaging." He also noted that sustainability is about attracting and retaining employees; at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, where Messer is the Sustainability Manager for Asia-Pacific, employees want to work for an impactful company.

The second half of the day after lunch was dedicated to "break out sessions" in smaller groups. Interested by Chris's talk, I joined his session on business value through sustainability. The last keynote was from Rob Coombs, CEO of Interface.

To kick off day 2, Dr. Sally Uren from Forum for the Future did an awesome opener and made everyone feel hungry to keep fighting towards a better future. My favorite keynote from Day 2, though, came from a very unexpected brand: Coca-Cola.

I knew that Coca-Cola has a massive CSR program, but I didn't realize it was so closely connected to the core of the business. It was sincerely an eye-opener for me to see the power of Coca-Cola to change the world for the better, and owning their environmental challenges so openly. I'd love to delve more into this brand one day to research the impact they are having around the world... speaking of global brands, next up, was one of our clients - Unilever!

Next up was Kersti Strandqvist on how SCA is using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to focus their efforts. SCA is a lesser known brand, with a beautiful attitude towards the environment. It was great to meet Kersti in person and hear about her challenges and opportunities regarding the impact they have on the environment. This is one company that truly looks towards a better future.

The one talk I was most looking forward to from day 2 was definitely the keynote from Christian Rojkjaer, Managing Director of IKEA for Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. He discussed simple sustainable solutions, including that IKEA taps that cut water consumption by up to 50 percent, using LED lighting exclusively (the first large retailer in the world to do so, as of September), and sourcing all cotton sustainably (also as of September). The key takeaway: "Sustainability doesn't happen by accident. It is a business decision."

So much information to take in! By this stage, my mind was going into overdrive with all the potential opportunities. Luckily after the mind-blowing IKEA presentation it was time for lunch and the breakout sessions. Due to the environmental disaster with the haze, I decided to join the discussion with Dr. Simon Lord, Group Sustainability Officer at Sime Darby, to learn more about palm oil and the decisions they are making to ensure a sustainable future.

It was obvious that Sime Darby has some huge challenges ahead, but it was honestly heartwarming to hear from their newly appointed Group Chief Sustainability Officer in such an open and honest dialog about his thoughts, fears and ideas on innovative directions they must take to become future-proof and relevant moving forward.

Nearing the end of day 2 and end of the conference, it was finally my turn to jump on stage and have a chat with David Kiu. My only goal of the discussion was to encourage the audience to stop thinking about "CSR" and start thinking about how we are going to turn businesses into a genuine force for good. It was great to have David share my sentiment - truly believing in the power of his employees to make a difference in the world. The audience response was positive, with lots of great questions and discussions following... but time soon ran out, and as time flew, the conference was already coming to a close.

As soon as it wrapped, I tucked away into my hotel room and started planning. How can I take all this information I have learnt from all these great big companies, and act on it NOW for the future of the planet?

The biggest lesson, I realized, was one that will stick with me as we near the start of the new year: Sustainability will LEAD business strategy completely within the next few years.

It's true. It's no longer a "side" responsibility for companies to do good. They have to bring it into their core business if they are going to survive, because young Millennials like us at Gone Adventurin' simply won't work for, buy from or accept companies that are not.

Thanks to everyone that I met at the conference, and especially to everyone at Sustainable Brands for making it such a killer event! I can't wait for the next one!

This article was originally published by Gone Adventurin' on November 2, 2015.


Jacqui is Creative Director at Gone Adventurin, a social impact consultancy based in Singapore.

[Read more about Jacqui Hocking]