One year after GlobeScan and SustainAbility kicked off The Regeneration Roadmap at Rio+20, I welcomed the opportunity to return to this paradoxically diverse city earlier this month for the Sustainable Brands Rio conference with SC Johnson, one of Regeneration’s presenting sponsors. As we prepare our final output Changing Tack for release on June 13th, this trip felt full-circle, of sorts.
Going into Rio+20 with rational pessimism lightly spiced with hope for an agenda-resetting outcome and a renewed sense of urgency within the UN process, we got the outcome we anticipated. The official declaration amounted to little substance. Instead, the energy in 2012 was concentrated in the private sector stream. So, I was curious where business in Brazil had arrived a year later, and SB Rio in Copacabana was the perfect place to assess the seascape, so to speak.
Focussed on the role of brands, organizers Report:Sustentibilide warmly hosted SC Johnson’s sustainability team, led by CSO Kelly Semrau and Jam Stewart. Kelly, Lorraine Smith of SustainAbility and I spoke in two sessions about new consumer dispositions that, while in tension, align sustainable and materialistic values. We’ve reported on this as part of Regeneration’s Re:Thinking Consumption market study conducted in Brazil and five other countries in conjunction with BBMG. The primarily Brazilian audience was keenly interested in what our findings meant for SC Johnson, a company with a soft-spoken and historically embedded commitment to sustainability. Kelly did not disappoint.
One question from the audience stood out. What does a manufacturer of consumer goods do when, as Daniel Izzo of Vox Capital emphasized, 75% of the population lives on less than about 20 reais per day? Kelly embraced the question, not only because SCJ has been committed to product performance and impact improvements from day one, but also because the query tabled the tough issue of ethical price premiums. The market has evolved beyond simplistic trade-offs, such that smart companies are now delivering value across the spectrum of consumer aspirations.
Still, it remains clear that mainstream big-business as usual will not deliver the pace of change required if it remains on its present course, which is presumably why Richard Branson said “screw business as usual” at Rio+20. SB Rio seemed to embrace that spirit. Just as a constellation of private sector commitments was the most promising outcome of Rio+20, SB Rio put the spotlight on realized synergies among the following, using real case studies but at a far smaller and even nascent levels:
We believe it is time to scale up. And as you’ll observe during our launch of Changing Tack, 18 months of engagement have led us to confirm that we need to create the conditions for system change through better leadership, counter-intuitive collaboration and reinvented trust. While it remains early in the day, social entrepreneurs in Brazil appear to be getting it right. Larger companies might have a lot to learn from them.
Eric Whan is Director of Sustainability for GlobeScan.