What makes a brand sustainable? This question was examined by over 1,000 sustainability practitioners over the course of 3 days last week at the Sustainable Brands conference in Carlsbad, California. Participants, including some of the world’s top producers and retailers, gathered in the quaint coastal town to share strategies on how to do less harm while continuing to meet the ever-evolving demands of their consumers – within the capacity of our finite planet. I had the privilege of heading back to my own hometown and attending the conference on behalf of the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies Brand Ambassador program to better understand how companies approach their sustainability initiatives, especially those regarding shipping and marine mammal protection.
Plenaries kicked off the conference with the sobering reminder that what companies are doing and have done is simply not enough to sustainably feed, clothe, and care for future generations. Individual speakers then offered optimism and emphasized the opportunities available to work more intuitively with nature. William McDonough, Co-author of the groundbreaking book Cradle to Cradle, reminded the over 1000 attendees that nature doesn’t have a design problem. Nature is adaptive and regenerative – a direct contradiction to a capitalistic society which extracts, transports, and then disposes of goods at the end of their useful life.
The theme continued with Biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus as she encouraged businesses to to work with nature rather than against it and apply the “genius” of the natural world to their business operations. Rather than focusing on just reducing carbon or water, for example, businesses should instead take a serious look at every landscape they affect along their entire supply chain. During my conversations with producers and retailers, it became clear that the complexity of supplier traceability makes this difficult to do, especially regarding impacts as specific as endangered whales, or coastal air quality.
I learned that brands relying on ocean freight often have little information about the regional environmental impacts of the ships carrying their products. The Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies Brand Ambassador program addresses this gap by providing companies that become a Brand Ambassador with data and information needed to better understand how shipping their products, or materials required to make their products, affects marine life, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality. Brand Ambassadors also receive tools and resources to communicate to their cargo carriers and their consumers when they make better shipping decisions.
Through the Brand Ambassador program, I explained, companies can reduce their environmental impact by shipping with participating cargo carriers that slow down in regions that are home to endangered whales and near coastal and port communities. Just like cars, maritime vessels traveling at reduced speeds use less fuel, emitting fewer greenhouse gasses and harmful air pollutants. Vessels that transit at 10 knots or less can also reduce the risk of fatal ship strikes to endangered whales by 50% and ocean noise. During conversations about the program, it seemed that each person I spoke with had a unique and memorable experience with whales, whether it was the joyous excitement of whale watching as a child, or the surprise of seeing humpback whales in front of the Statue of Liberty as populations made a comeback in the New York Harbor.
Fortunately, being part of our Brand Ambassador program is not only good for whales and the planet, but can also be good for profit. According to an IBM study of 18,980 consumers in 28 countries, nearly eighty percent of respondents indicate sustainability is important to them. Of those who say it is very/extremely important, over 70 percent would pay a premium of 35 percent, on average, for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible. Consumers want to feel good about their purchases, and want companies to empower them with the data to make informed decisions for the planet. The Brand Ambassador program enables companies to meet this need.
On my last day at the conference, I had lunch with speaker Jo Confino, Huffington Post's executive editor, Impact & Innovation, and Zen mindfulness practitioner. I explained to him how the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program addresses an important and yet often overlooked piece of the sustainability puzzle. Metrics and data aside, I learned from fellow attendees that no one wants to cause harm to endangered blue whales, one of the world’s largest and most charismatic species – our intelligent and graceful, and social and playful ocean-dwelling mammal relatives. Jo paused, and in the most Zen practitioner way possible asked an unexpected question: “Do you think that the whales appreciate the effort you are putting forth to help them”? I thought back on the number of times I have surfed with sea lions, paddled alongside a curious pod of dolphins, or been approached by a friendly humpback whale showing off her recently birthed calf, and responded “yes, I believe they do”.