A good sustainability conference can be hard to come by. There seems to be conferences for every type of industry and sector. Unfortunately, sustainability professionals are often the black sheep of events that are typically adjacent to their focus.
One of the premier events in sustainability is the Sustainable Brands annual conference. This year, I went to SB 23 in San Diego, California. I have been to the Sustainable Brands conference before, so this wasn’t my first rodeo. There was a lot to love about the conference, but there was one thing that viscerally and negatively impacted my experience.
First, What I Loved
The type of people who attend these events are second to none. There are hundreds of people packed into a room who are all focused on building a sustainable future within their respective organizations. Each person’s story is so dimensional. How they got to where they’re at is a series of zigs and zags that is unique to them. For better or for worse, this creates a career trajectory that is typically not straightforward.
There are sustainability executives from both large Fortune 500 companies and climate tech startups. There are consultants and service providers who focus on streamlining innovations focused on embedding sustainability into large organizations. It’s amazing to see the ecosystem that has been built throughout the past few decades. The sustainability community is buzzing with commitment and passion for a greener future.
Besides Green Biz and New York Climate Week, Sustainable Brands is one of the only events in America where large corporations, startups, investors, NGOs, and consultants get together to figure out how to decarbonize our society.
From the people I spoke with at the event, content at SB 23 was looked at in one of two ways.
- Really good quality and insightful. This feedback was typically given by a person who attended the event for the first time.
- Boring and elementary. This feedback was typically given by someone who has been to multiple SB events.
The best part of this event was the lunches, dinners, networking breaks, and after-hours activities. This is because there are so many interesting people in the room who aren’t on stage. Out of all the speeches on stage, my favorite was from one of the leaders at Kiss the Ground.
Apparently, since the documentary came out, over 33 million acres of land have been converted to regenerative agriculture. That’s so cool!
The Elephant In The Room
So often, sustainability professionals walk a fine line. There are watchdog groups all over just waiting to pounce on an organization that lies about their accomplishments in sustainability. This is commonly referred to as greenwashing. As a recoil of the backlash that companies have received for over-embellishing their impact, companies have started something called “green hushing.” This is the exact opposite of greenwashing, where a company will hide (or not publicize) the fact that they’ve accomplished something that reduces their footprint.
I am not a watchdog group. I’m just a professional in the sustainability industry who believes in trying to do my part to better the planet. Over the years, I have seen tons of companies embellish the truth, and I’ve also seen companies that under-communicate their impact.
We live in a day and age where some corporate marketing teams will say anything as long as they can get away with it. Although this may benefit the company, it hurts our movement. Environmental disinformation is extremely harmful to the integrity of the sustainability community. Unfortunately, some large companies have turned caring for our planet into a tool for manipulation and deception.
It has become quite easy for companies to embellish their impact in the field. In this case, it’s not so much about embellishing impact as it is about ignoring the elephant in the room.
In walks Bayer, a leader in the agriculture business. In 2018, it purchased a little company called Monsanto, the producer of Roundup. For those who are unfamiliar, Roundup is a glyphosate-based herbicide with a long track record of creating health complications for humans.
In fact, there have already been 100,000 settlements for Roundup lawsuits, totaling over $11 billion. This doesn’t include the roughly 30,000+ lawsuits that have not been settled yet. Of course, does Bayer talk about this? No. Bayer talks about leading the regenerative agriculture movement. It was also the lead sponsor of the Regenerative Agriculture Summit that Sustainable Brands hosted at the end of the conference.
It’s hard to believe that a company like Bayer is leading the regenerative agriculture movement when it is the producer of Roundup (and liable for the billions in lawsuits attached to the product). Would the leaders of Kiss the Ground agree that Bayer is a leader in regenerative agriculture? If I was to guess, probably not.
Sustainable Brands has to make money. As an organization that supports the sustainability movement, that can be difficult.
One of the problems this creates is that companies that have harmed the planet sponsor Sustainable Brands as a means to promote their sustainability efforts. Unfortunately, Bayer is not the only company to fall under this scope. Many of their sponsors have gotten up on stage to talk about how sustainable they are.
As a lead sponsor, companies like Bayer deserve their keynote speaking session. Sustainable Brands does a good job keeping these talks pretty short (15 minutes). But, there’s no Q&A session, which means there’s no accountability.
Bayer can get on stage and talk about how they’re leading the regenerative agriculture movement with no repercussions. And, that’s exactly what they did.
Why This Is A Problem
There’s nothing newsworthy about Bayer greenwashing. The problem is the ripple effect. Common discussion topics that you might overhear at the lunches and networking breaks at conferences include:
- How are you liking the conference so far?
- What has been your favorite part?
- What learnings are you going to take back to your team?
- What don’t you like about the conference?
It was amazing how many people mentioned Bayer in their discussion. This doesn’t reflect badly on Bayer as much as it creates an integrity problem for Sustainable Brands. This organization should not turn into a platform used for greenwashing or environmental disinformation. That’s not beneficial for Sustainable Brands, its members, or the ecosystem that surrounds the cleantech movement.
Acknowledgement: A Potential Solution
By acknowledging the problem that has been created, Sustainable Brands is developing trust with its attendees.
Unfettered greenwashing will eventually create an organization with no integrity. This goes for both Bayer and Sustainable Brands.
Of course, Sustainable Brands can’t tell Bayer what to say and how to say it. That’s not realistic. What is realistic is telling Bayer that it has to acknowledge the problem that it is responsible for (before talking about its solution for a greener future).
This doesn’t need to go on for 13 of the 15 minute presentation. This can be a few sentences at the beginning of a speech that acknowledges the elephant in the room.
Legal and marketing teams will say, “this is impossible.” Companies in Bayer’s position are walking a fine line because they don’t want to open themselves up to risks (increasing their exposure to more lawsuits).
But, I would wager to say that the legal and marketing teams of any large corporation can come up with some language that acknowledges the elephant in the room without destroying the legal footing of the company.
A simple 2–4 sentences at the beginning of the speech would go a long way: “As a large company, we acknowledge that the impact we’ve had hasn’t always been positive. Sometimes there are unintended consequences when large companies create new products. As an executive, it’s my goal to lead my organization into a more sustainable framework over the next few years. And, here’s how we’re going to do it.”
This is just an example of one way leaders at big companies like Bayer could approach acknowledging what everyone in the room is already thinking.
Sustainable Brands should be telling big brands that they need to own up to some of their missteps if they want to get on stage and tell their story. Otherwise, the story is incomplete.
This isn’t just about Bayer. Sustainable Brands has allowed cigarette companies to give presentations about a smokeless future (where vaping is the new standard). They have also allowed large companies in the personal care market on stage to talk about how much they care about the products they put on their babies’ skin (when they have multi-billion-dollar judgements concerning the health risks from products put on humans’ skin). It can be nauseating to hear this type of greenwashing on stage at a large sustainability conference.
Sustainability-focused media organizations have a responsibility to make sure their members are educated about the good and the bad. Sustainable Brands isn’t stupid, and the audience isn’t either.
If Sustainable Brands ensures that companies that get on stage acknowledge ways in which their companies have both positively and negatively impacted the world, the organization will garner the respect it deserves as one of the leaders in the sustainability movement.
By a CleanTechnica guest contributor who asked for anonymity
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