Sustainable Brands Sydney

Sustainability is a team sport. Don’t do it alone.

That’s Tim Loftus, the sustainability manager from outdoor adventure wear brand Kathmandu, speaking at the Sustainable Brands conference in Sydney recently. Sustainable Brands is a roving global event, having started in New Orleans in 2006, and now reaching six continents, with the Sydney rendition its first appearance in Australia.

Across three days of lectures and workshops, attendees heard inspiring stories from TerraCycle, MUD Jeans, OzHarvest, Emma & Tom’s, Serendipity Ice Cream, Kathmandu and ecostore, amongst strategists, academics, CEOs and heads of communications and marketing.

Both local and global speakers – from typically conventional big business down to the Millennial entrepreneur – delved into the technologies, skills, ideas and collaborations that drive their brands forward within a sustainable economy framework.

Sustainable Brands Sydney

Each quickly-make-a-cup-of-tea break was like speed dating with equivalent minds from another brand or industry. Snatches of critical conversation on topics just discussed on the stage lead to brief introductions, business cards swapped, new friendships made and global community grown.

A strong takeaway was that business has the power to do good. While the Australian Government has committed to keeping global warming below two degrees as part of the Paris climate change agreement, there has been little action to match this verbal responsibility. “Governments still aren’t framing markets, so businesses are taking the lead,” Sally Uren from Forum for the Future told the conference on day one.

This is where sustainably minded brands come into play – businesses with environmental and social purpose at their core. “It isn’t good enough to be less bad, we actually need to be net positive,” Uren continued. “Simply minimising isn’t enough, we need to put more back than we’re taking out. We don’t know how to do it yet, but that’s not stopping us.”

So we’re feeling our way along this journey of making purpose-led businesses scalable so that good at work ripples further afield – into consumer habits, societal lifestyle choices and, perhaps one day, government policymaking.

Sustainable Brands Sydney - Bert van Son MUD Jeans

A prominent theme across the conference was to create with the mindset that you have a mission with a company, not a company with a mission. But a factor that seemed a challenge to all industries – and with no one clear formula for success – was how best to communicate a brand’s story and the ethics and values at their core, and, in turn, engage more meaningfully with consumers.

It’s sometimes all too easy to see brands as a big enterprise without a face – operating without humans and ethics and heart. But it’s in telling the story of the humans behind the supply chain, and the brand’s commitment to the environment, that brings about that deeper connection.

Telling the story of the cotton farmer who grows the organic cotton that then gets spun into thread by the hands of other humans, which becomes fabric that is dyed by a person, and cut and assembled by a person to eventually form the t-shirt that cloaks your back – this storytelling offers transparency and honesty, and fosters trust between the brand and its audience. And it needs to be done through telling positive stories, rather than the scare tactics that eco warriors have championed in recent decades.

“Instead of scaring people into the solution, we need to delight people. People want to have fun along the way, they don’t want to be guilted into it,” Tom Szaky from Terra Cycle. Adam Beaumont from the Forest Stewardship Council echoed this method. “Negative stories are not part of the solution. Tell a positive story.”

The focus was also on Millennials and their influence on industry going forward. “By 2020 over half the workforce will be Gen Y and Z … and they don’t think like you do,” sustainability leader at Ernst and Young Matthew Bell said. He explained that younger demographics expect brands to show up in a way that makes a difference in the world. “Millennials want to be part of the conversation; they don’t want to be spoken to.” Founder of MUD Jeans Bert van Son has also experienced Millennials actively pursuing involvement in his jeans-leasing enterprise. “When you do something that’s interesting and purposeful, you get a lot of young people calling you and asking you questions,” he said.

Humanness, connectivity and community are key players in reshaping business and what it means to be successful. So we can create a planet we’re proud to hand over to the next generation. “The world our generation has created will not exist in a few years. We have to create something for them,” van Son says.

Browse the hashtag on social media for more from the event #sb16syd

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Photos and text by Linsey Rendell
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