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3BL Forum Offers Insight Into Brands Taking Stands 3.0

johnhowell headshotWords by John Howell

3BL Media Sponsored Series

3BL Forum 2018
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The annual 3BL Forum has come and gone, but its impact will reverberate throughout the corporate responsibility field for some time to come. For the more than 300 CR professionals, CEOs, sustainability executives, and journalists who gathered at the MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., the 3BL Forum was a fast-paced, idea-packed two days of panels, breakout sessions, issue tables, one-on-one interviews, and networking. Surprising analysis, new research, opinionated viewpoints, and frank commentaries—this conference was a business as unusual meeting from start to finish. Arguably, what got discussed at the event was a 3.0 version of Brands Taking Stands, one in which companies announced a wide variety of approaches to the rapidly evolving complexities of this still nascent movement.

Titled “Brands Taking Stands — The Long View,” the agenda delivered many deep insights as promised, but also offered perspectives as broad as they were deep.

That wider view was on display in the Town Hall session, which brought together senior corporate leaders and journalists to explore various stances within the overall concept of brands taking stands. Sherrie Deane, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association Foundation, voiced her organization’s principle of supporting all NBA players who take public positions, including those with right-wing views. Eli Stokols, White House reporter for the Los Angeles Times, laid out the conundrum of covering a deliberately confrontational administration, which forces journalists to question their tradition of objectivity. Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, EVP of government and corporate affairs for Univision Communications, told the backstory of how the Spanish-language television network became the first corporation to pull away from the current administration by cutting broadcasting ties with the Trump Organization, because of anti-immigrant remarks made when Donald Trump announced his candidacy. And this was just half of this provocative panel’s exchange.

Also eye-opening were presentations by companies not often considered through a CR filter. In a one-on-one interview which I conducted with Altria’s Jennifer Hunter, we discussed the sobering issues of harm reduction and underage tobacco use, and how the company has focused on those health issues with major programs. On a panel about legacy firms, Smithfield Farms’ Bill Gill talked about that company’s responsibility for operational excellence and innovation in a meat packing industry with a low reputation for both. Confirming their respective commitments at the Forum, both companies made subsequent announcements that matched actions to their words.

Altria announced that it would discontinue most of its flavored e-cigarettes and stop selling some brands altogether, in response to concerns about their use by youth. The company also pledged to support federal legislation to raise the age to buy any tobacco or vaping products to 21.

Smithfield announced plans to cover 90 percent of its hog waste lagoons in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah within the next 10 years to protect the pits from heavy rains, such as those from Hurricane Florence that caused flooding and environmental concerns. Smithfield also plans to use new technology to capture methane for generating renewable natural gas, supporting Smithfield Renewables, its year-old biogas initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025.

These two case studies offered new ways to think about what taking a stand might mean, in both concept and operations.

The Forum’s highlight was the CR Magazine Responsible CEO of the Year Awards, given in several categories. Some notes on the winners, by the numbers:


  • Aflac’s Dan Amos announced that the insurance company intends to provide a robotic, therapeutic plush duck to every U.S. child, aged 3 to 13, who is diagnosed with cancer.

  • Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, winner of the Humanitarian Award, has served 4.5 million meals to those affected by Hurricanes Maria and Florence.

  • Danone North America completed its B Corp certification within one year (it usually takes three); with over $6 billion in revenue, it is now by far the largest B Corp, said CEO Mariano Lozano.

  • VF Corporation’s Steve Rendle spoke about leveraging its 20 apparel brands and 70,000 employees to shift from selling to retailers to selling directly to consumers.

  • PwC’s JC LaPierre announced that 550 CEOs are now signed up for CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, an initiative kickstarted by CEO Tim Ryan.

  • BCD’s John Snyder spoke about creating a company and a community for the next generation of its 13,500 global employees.

The variety of initiatives and their large scale spoke to the mainstreaming of CR throughout industries and sectors. All sorts of brands are now taking various “stands” to make progressive change—that was the bottom line of the Awards dinner.

There were many more ideas, insights, and comments on display at 3BL Forum worth thinking about at length—talk about “the long view!” For more about the 3BL Forum, “Brands Taking Stands — The Long View”:


  • Videos of the presentations will be posted shortly at 3BL Forum.

  • Articles about Forum issues can be found here.

  • You can see the full agenda of the 2018 Forum here.
Image courtesy of Aflac

John Howell headshotJohn Howell

John Howell, Chief of Thought Leadership and Editorial Director, is a co-founder of 3BL Media, the parent company of Triple Pundit, begun in 2009. Howell oversees original editorial content procurement and creation. He is also the author of the weekly Brands Taking Stands Newsletter. He has written and edited for Elle, Artforum, High Times, the New York Times Magazine, and the LA Times. Howell is based in Wonalancet, NH.

Read more stories by John Howell