The big themes at Sustainable Brands San Diego.

Sustainable Brands San Diego

As part of ongoing personal and professional interest in sustainability, Gayle and I volunteered at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego from the 2nd to the 5th of June. With close to 200 speakers and workshop facilitators, the subject matter covered was both diverse and far-reaching, however I felt that certain themes had particular lasting power. The following is a short round-up of these themes together with a mention for the people putting them forward (who I would strongly suggest checking out).

1. The Collaborative Economy

The Collaborative Economy Honeycomb
The Collaborative Economy Honeycomb. Companies collaborating on goods, money, space, transportation, services and food. Source: Crowd Companies.

Jeremy Owyang from Crowd Companies presented an excellent session about the Collaborative Economy, showing how companies can actually be part of this growing trend rather than shy away from it. So what is this collaborative economy?

With stressed natural resources, a sense of responsibility over consumption and serious awareness about waste generation, it is becoming increasingly apparent that sharing resources is actually a really good practice. Obvious, one may say, but for a long time now we’ve existed in highly separate pods that necessitate us buying each item we make use of and storing it till it is next required.

As a natural evolution from internet sharing and social media, sharing has moved on to physical objects, with people realizing that this model is a lot more financially, socially and environmentally friendly than just owning it all.

Although the concept might sound like bad news for companies, a growing list of brands have already jumped on the sharing bandwagon. Netflix, Lyft and AirBnB are literally brands as services that facilitate sharing between consumers. More traditional brands such as BMW, Toyota, Nokia, Home Depot and Patagonia have however also managed to tailor their offering to fit the sharing model and are benefitting from the opportunities that come with being early adopters.

To get on the sharing bandwagon view Jeremiah’s presentation here and I’d also suggest his article about how to win in the collaborative economy.


2. The Circular Economy

The Circular Economy
The closed loops in the Circular Economy. Source:

Jamie Butterworth, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation presented the Circular Economy as a business model which benefits corporations, people and the environment. In Europe alone, if linear companies had to step into circularity they would generate $630 billion which is no mean feat. He also quoted 80% of inputs in the FMCG industry as being wasted, presenting massive opportunity for advancement when portions of that are injected back within the system.

Printer manufacturers Ricoh were mentioned as a company in which circularity is integrated as they buy back end of life printers, de-componetise them and use materials to remanufacture new printers using 80% less energy. Circularity simply pays.


3. Recognising that change starts from the inside

You are not responsible for what is happening in the world. You are responsible for yourself. Change starts from within.
Change starts within. (Source:

Mindfulness was a big theme at the conference, with Rich Fernandez opening sessions with short group meditations and calls for reflection. Being engaged in and passionate about sustainability we often see ourselves as activists avidly trying to change the world around us, frequently discouraged by the sheer magnitude of the project at hand. In actual fact, however, we only really have ourselves to worry about and looking inward is actually the key to real change and a direct invitation for others to delve into introspection.

It was refreshing to hear honest, heartfelt pieces from the likes of Jo Confino, Pamela Wilhelms, Maggie De Pree, Erica Ariel Fox, Sue Kochan and Renee Lertzman among others, all of whom touched upon introspection being the real path to making change. Quoting Gandhi “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves”.

There was also ongoing conversation about the role of transparency and realness in this process of introspection and acknowledging that we go through continuous struggle to truly align ourselves with our values. Aside from light banter about whether Jo Confino finally managed to order his ‘health-aligned’ breakfast, I really enjoyed Jo’s heartfelt interventions about embracing vulnerability and suffering as being very much part of the process and being real about how successful we are at actually filtering decisions through purpose.

Renee Lertzman from Brand Cool spoke about recognising different sides of yourself and being aware of each when making decisions or choosing a path in tackling a problem. Renee spoke about our inner warrior – the part of us that feels the need to fix and change things, the prisoner who acts in contraction and a place of reaction and the sage who stays open to experiencing our shared humanity and acts through heart. All three are strategies we engage in at particular points in time to protect ourselves, transforming from one to the other fluidly. I enjoyed reading her article What kind of Changemaker are you? which creates a spectrum for those working in sustainability through four main lenses, that of the Behaviourist, Sociologist, Guru and Designer. She ends by stating that all four lenses are needed for true change in sustainability and that our responsibility lies in identifying which mix of those lenses we bring to the table and in being open to collaborating closely with those who complement us and complete the full spectrum for a true rounded approach.


4. Being a story doer, not just a story teller

Storydoing companies perform better financially.
Research done by Co:Collective says walking your talk reaps financial rewards and helps build brand equity. (Source:

Many of us are good at brand storytelling, but how many of us are actually living that story? Ty Montague delved deep into the difference between companies conveying the story of their brand through advertising and pr and those transmitting it through direct action. His company, Co:Collective conducted research measuring the differences between brands which were simply storytellers and those which were storydoers.

Results showed clear wins for storydoers who ended up doing better financially and getting a lot more attention social media attention even though their media spend was lower than storytellers’. In his own words, “storytellers spend more money but storydoers get most engagement. Live your story. ” You can view his full presentation here.

CVS’ case study of stopping the sale of tobacco products from their pharmacies after they felt this was not in line with their brand’s mission to make people healthier was a case in point. CVS were ready to lose out on $2 billion worth of revenue by stopping the sale of tobacco which really sent out far reaching ripples and got them unprecedented media coverage and a real opportunity to show that they do in fact walk the talk. They have now strengthened their stand by offering smoking cessation clinics at their stores, thus being truly in line with their brand story and mission.


For a direct look at all the main presentations at Sustainable Brands San Diego, you can follow session recordings here.