My 2014 Sustainability Moment of Optimism

TED@Unilever
Keith Weed speaking at TED@Unilever

Looking backwards at 2014 I can find plenty of events that made me more optimistic. At the same time I can also find plenty of events that made me more pessimistic.

I’m probably not the only one in this space having these mixed feelings, but at the end of day I’d rather stay optimistic (how otherwise can you drive change?), which is why I’d like to share with you the most optimistic moment I had in 2014 when it comes to sustainability.

Now, let’s be clear – when I talk about optimism, I’m not talking about burying your head in the sand or daydreaming about a utopian future, but about a very realistic “hopefulness and confidence about the future,” which is exactly what I found in September at TED@Unilever.

This day long TED-curated event, which took place in New York, featured a diverse group of speakers from across Unilever. What I liked most about it was that, unlike many corporate events, this one didn’t try to present a sugary version of the reality when it comes to sustainability. It kept a positive vibe (after all it’s still a TED event) but at the same time didn’t ignore the hardships, obstacles and frustrations shared by those seeking to advance sustainability.

This approach was demonstrated very early at the event with the first speaker, Keith Weed, chief marketing and communication officer at Unilever, who presented the company’s vision and progress on sustainability.

Weed shared with the audience some interesting answers to a question he raised: “How do companies like Unilever, and others like Disney, Ikea and Nike, start trying to make sustainable living commonplace?” He talked, for example, about the need to mainstream sustainability through the whole company and how Unilever did it by closing its corporate social responsibility (CSR) department and launching Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.

Weed then went on to describe how the company publicly reports its progress annually against 50 time-based targets: “Not only where we are achieving targets but where we are missing them too. We are learning as we go, and we need the help of partners and stakeholders to close these gaps.” He also made the argument that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action: “So, when people ask me what the business case for sustainability is, I say – I would love to see the case for the alternative.”

You don’t have to be an avid TriplePundit reader (although we hope you are!) to know that Unilever is one of the leaders when it comes to corporate sustainability. Nevertheless, it was inspiring to hear a narrative that is still so rare in the corporate world — one that is about making sustainability not just part of the organization’s strategy but the organization’s strategy, continuous experimentation, being honest about not having all the answers and very clear why those going on with business-as-usual should be on the defense, not the ones advancing sustainable business.

And this was just the beginning. As you can imagine the day was full of inspiring and interesting speakers, presenting their stories and insights on sustainability. I found almost all of them very exciting, but those that truly filled me with optimism were the ones focusing on the human factor, reminding me what Ezio Manzini once said about how we could see the 7 billion people on the planet today or 9 billion people tomorrow not as problems but as people with capabilities, who could be intelligent operators. The challenge Manzini said is to create a system catalyzing the best, not the worst, out of the people.

One example of how you create such a system was the story of Greyston Bakery that was presented by its CEO, Mike Brady. Based in Yonkers, New York, this is not just a bakery producing great baked goods (try their incredible brownies!), but also a living example of how business success and social justice are two sides of the same coin. As Brady explained, their goal is making high-quality, profitable products and helping eradicate poverty in southwest Yonkers. And they do it very simply by applying an open hiring model, or in other words employing the unemployable. “Anyone that comes to the front door of the bakery gets a job,” Weed explained their policy. “We don’t ask him any questions; we don’t ask for the references; we don’t try to interview them. We’re only interested in what they’re capable of doing in the future.”

If the audience needed an example to better understand what Brady was talking about, it received it from Dion Drew, who told us how he wanted to change his life after getting in and out of jail for years for selling drugs, but had no place to start as no one wanted to hire him — until Greyston Bakery gave him a chance. Drew’s story wasn’t the only empowerment story we heard that day – from Rania Bahaa, an environmental specialist at Unilever Mashreq in Egypt, who shared stories on how waste could become a way for people in need to live in dignity to Dr. Myriam Sidibe, who told the incredible story of hand washing with soap, which as she explained “can save over 600,000 children every year.”

These stories and others made me optimistic because they were a reminder of how solutions to the most difficult problems we face are not necessarily about developing new technologies, but about changing norms and behaviors.

It isn’t a simple task either, but if more corporations will finally understand that “you can’t have a healthy business in an unhealthy society” and help catalyze change like Unilever does it’s very much doable. At least this is what I thought that day going home back from TED@Unilever. I hope I didn’t get it wrong.

Image credit: Ryan Lash/TED

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. 

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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