Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Mary Mazzoni headshot

What’s Next For the Brands Taking Stands Movement? 10 Insights From Business Leaders

By Mary Mazzoni
3BL Forum Brands Taking Stands What's Next

(Image: Emcees Catherine Hernandez-Blades of Aflac and Mark Shamley of Tupperware lead the discussion surrounding what's next in the brands taking stands movement at the 2019 3BL Forum.) 

In response to increasing consumer pressure, the wave of corporate, executive and employee activism shows no signs of slowing. Seventy percent of U.S. consumers now say they want to know what brands are doing to address social and environmental issues, according to market research published this month.

But speaking out on defining—and some might say contentious—issues is still uncharted territory for many brands and their executives. In a 2018 study, Deloitte interviewed the CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, and many expressed uncertainty about how and when to take a public stance. 

The 2019 3BL Forum brought together leaders from purpose-driven startups to major multinationals to discuss what’s next in the brands taking stands movement—and their perspectives can help light the way forward for the uninitiated. 

Read on for the need-to-know insights shared on day one of the Forum, held at the MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C. 

1. Expectations will continue to increase.

"Each of the individual crises we face—from ocean acidification, to loss of biodiversity, to climate change—are extraordinary in their own right. Together, it’s a seismic shift in the reality we have to operate in," said Simon Mainwaring, founder and CEO of We First. "That future is hurdling toward us, and the expectations on brands, employees, consumers and partners are shifting. We don’t have the luxury of iterating on our own time. The expectation on companies is going to increase exponentially. You'll either rise to meet it, or your social license to operate will be revoked." 

2. To communicate purpose effectively, companies have to live it before they share it.

"It’s critical to communicate, but you have to be authentic. Companies are so quick to jump onto the moment: ‘Hey, it’s International Women’s Day, let’s do a campaign.’ But that's purpose-washing. That shouldn’t be the norm," said Alison DaSilva, EVP of purpose for Porter Novelli/Cone. "You have to take a step back and ask some basic questions: Why do you exist? How are you walking the talk? What are you really doing about equality? It’s important to balance living your purpose with telling your purpose." 

3. The time for small steps is over.

"We have to change the way we talk, think and act as sustainability people, because we don't have the time," said Kip Cleverley, VP of global sustainability for International Flavors and Fragrances. "We have to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. We are in a climate emergency. It's no longer about little steps."

4. It's not about sales.

"We don’t do what we do to sell more ice cream. The minute you pursue social or political action to sell more product, you doom it to fail," said Matthew McCarthy, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. Still, he noted, “Getting criticized is a big part of it. It’s a barometer for success. If I’m not being criticized, I’m probably not pushing hard enough.”

5. Customers want to get involved—and companies need to let them.

"Remember, you have other people who you have to pull with you. You can’t just decide that you want to do this and think people will come running," advised Eileen Boone, EVP of corporate social responsibility for CVS Health. "It’s really a collaboration, particularly for consumer-facing businesses. Those consumers have to be part of the solution. You have to make sure you understand their point of view and give them opportunities to be involved." 

6. We still can't drive impact without the business case.

"We all have to be business leaders first or we’re doing a disservice to our stakeholders," noted Catherine Hernandez-Blades, SVP, chief ESG and communications officer for Aflac. "The materiality piece and making the business case will do more to get us those resources and get us the attention we need to be able to make a difference." 

7. A one-time stance is not enough.  

"Being courageous means taking a long-term stand rather than short-term actions," insisted Tim McClimon, SVP of American Express and president of the American Express Foundation. "Signing a letter or a petition is great, but corporations need to take the long view and make long-term commitments." 

8. Your legacy is tied to your impact.

"No one will know your story unless you tell them. No one will care about your story unless you make it relevant. And no one will remember your story unless you make an impact," said Andy DiOrio, PR and social media director of corporate reputation for Hallmark Cards. 

9. It's past time for companies to get serious about their cultures. 

"Culture is not something we just speak about. It’s something you need to create. It takes work, and it is difficult," said Leslie Short, CEO and founder of the Cavu Group. "You just can’t hire a diversity and inclusion person, give them a title and check that box. That’s unacceptable. It’s time to stop checking boxes. If you say you’re doing the work, do the work—or stop speaking about it. Doing the work means bringing people who don’t look like you, sound like you or even walk like you along with you. It is past time for us to grow and to change and to build internal culture."

10. The future belongs to those who don't fear failure. 

"We call failure the first attempt in learning," said Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. "We teach our girls that it’s okay to fail. That’s how you learn. It’s so important to how you get to the next level. In the same way, it presents such an opportunity when you have the mindset in an organization that you want innovation, you want a sense of urgency, and you want employees who are go-getters and take risks."

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni