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Andrea Newell headshot

Business is Crucial to Effect Large-Scale Change

SXSWeco, like many others, is a conference about ideas, issues, solutions and lessons learned. There are many entities (NGOs and local governments, etc.) present to participate on panels about issues like ocean conservation, prosperity in the face of climate change and future-proofing cities, but there is a strong underlying idea at SXSWeco about effecting change: business plays a key, if not the most important, part. To complement the efforts of these other entities, we need the power of business, and its ability to motivate individuals.

Keynote speaker, Adam Werbach, talked about his early work as an activist, leading the Sierra Club at just 23, and his migration toward working with businesses, most notably when he decided to work with Walmart in 2006. This led to a wave of criticism and even not-so-subtle threats. But now, it seems completely logical for these disparate groups to come together, bringing their various strengths to bear on the global issues at hand, a relationship that first-year SXSWeco keynote speaker, The Nature Conservancy's Mark Tercek, also strongly advocates.

"Walmart has taken the stigma away from sustainability," Werbach said. "However, we shouldn't let Walmart or any other company simply rest on its laurels."

So, as we hold businesses accountable for their sustainability efforts, encouraging them to continually raise the bar on their goals, sustainability, as a whole, needs businesses to make strides in order for there to be real change.

Jay Coen Gilbert, one of the founders of B Lab, said to The Guardian's Jo Confino,

"Business needs to be part of the solution to create a more shared and durable prosperity. But many people don't know it is supposed to be part of the solution. A large and growing community of people believe that it is part of the solution...It's less about what business is doing poorly, we're not coming at it from the perspective of 'shame on you, business,' it's more that we are challenged, collaboratively, with large, growing and sometimes seemingly intractable problems... Increasingly, governments and NGOs are necessary, but insufficient to the task. That leaves us with businesses as the only actors that have the capacity and scale to respond to those challenges..."

Transparency and acting on consumer feedback

Now, more than ever, transparency and listening to consumer feedback is vitally important. Nearly all of the businesses that spoke of making progress, gave credit to the relationships they had built with their stakeholders as well as being transparent as  a company, many times those attributes going hand-in-hand. And a new trend is endowing individuals with company-like power in peer-to-peer endeavors.

Gilbert and co-founders of B Lab, Bart Houlahan, and Andrew Kassoy, are businessmen, not activists, and started B Lab to "create a better world through business." As they educate other businesses on how to become certified B Corporations, that goes a long way toward effecting change in business (their influence is 15,000 businesses strong, according to Gilbert). Gilbert explained that the real progress came from participants' willingness to take their survey.

"On every line of that survey, we give people a chance to give us feedback and comment on the question, the survey, anything they want. I think our success comes from us listening to them," Gilbert said.

Robin Chase, one of the founders of Zipcar, learned that amazing things could happen when corporations and individuals came together. After leaving Zipcar, a company that distributed cars throughout a metropolitan area for people to use for an hour or a day, Chase founded Buzzcar in Europe. With Buzzcar, car owners themselves would rent their cars to individuals for a day, a week or a month. Her current way of thinking, Peers, Inc., brings out the best in corporations and individuals, but she has learned a lot about how they need to work together and compromise to be successful, but when it works, the possibility of scale is limitless. In a company, she says, there might be 100 people working on innovation, but with a peer-to-peer network, there can be hundreds or thousands.

The principles of the sharing economy and peer-to-peer interaction give people the power to effect even more change than they could individually. As people are giving away items (yerdle), utilizing cars between many users (Buzzcar), and invite guests to share their home (Airbnb), each transaction has the potential to take cars off the road, infuse more money into local economies, and reuse items that used to sit on a shelf. Multiply that by thousands, and real change is taking place.

 "No matter how many smart people are in the room, there are many many more smarter people outside this room," Chase said, although the quote originated elsewhere.

Businesses in all industries have the power to effect change, from Walmart to B Lab to Zipcar, each with its own approach. Some companies are showing huge numbers conserving energy, water and natural resources, while others are investing in their workers by treating them well. The more innovative ways businesses think to reach out to and motivate people, the more we will see change.

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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