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“The suits have got to get out of the office – I don’t care what industry it is - and find out what’s going on on the ground.”
~ Temple Grandin on finding sustainable solutions
That was perhaps the most popular message from GreenBiz 2020. It was definitely mentioned most on social media during the three-day event in Scottsdale, a gathering of more than 1,500 sustainability leaders from business, government, NGOs and academia.
The event was sponsored, in part, by The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, which is the hub of Arizona State University’s sustainability initiatives.
Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, animal behavior researcher and autism activist, stressed that to solve problems related to sustainability, corporate leaders need to “get right down there in the weeds and find out what’s going on out in the field. You cannot do it from the office.”
In a fast-paced, free-ranging plenary discussion, Grandin stressed the importance of identifying specific problems and working to make changes. Grandin, who is famously a visual thinker, said, “I visualize solutions to problems. Sometimes that can simplify problem-solving. You need us visual thinkers to figure things out. Other people are pattern thinkers. Then you have the verbal people. They also have big ideas. Those are important.”
On that same day, Thunderbird’s Mary Teagarden, Associate Dean of Faculty and Administration and Professor of Global Strategy, took part in a GreenBiz 2020 workshop designed to help identify some of those big ideas.
The session that Prof. Teagarden took part in was on the event’s Materiality and Metrics track. During ‘How to Be an SDG Innovator’ workshop, participants explored creative approaches to advancing the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), centered in design-thinking and innovation. And they heard from this year's cohort of the sustainability accelerator Young SDG Innovators Program, future global leaders who are developing and driving solutions through new technologies, initiatives, and business models, and delivering on the sustainability objectives of the organizations they represent.
“ASU-sponsored GreenBiz 2020 focuses on economics, environment, social equity … and action.” – Click to tweet
The Young SDG Innovators Program is an initiative of the United Nations (UN) Global Compact. This elite program engages young professionals in a 10-month collaboration to advance sustainability efforts, drive innovation, and create solutions that challenge the status quo. Participating teams represent a wide range of industries and have been selected for their novel ideas on how to progress any one of the UN Global Compact’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The UN Global Compact is a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption, and to take action in support of the universal objectives embodied in the SDGs.
GreenBiz 2020 kicks off a month full of sustainability events, the Sustainability Solutions Festival. Events include the Sustainability Family Weekend at the Arizona Science Center, which culminates with Arizona State University's Sustainability Family Day, part of the Sustainability Solutions Festival organized by ASU's Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives.
“Thunderbird shares messages from Young SDG Innovators Program during a gathering of sustainability leaders.” – Click to tweet
The Sustainability Solutions Festival is active throughout the year supporting competitions and other festivals across the globe that encourage and promote innovation and creativity among students and entrepreneurs who are developing inclusive and sustainable solutions to our planet’s challenges. It's a cause that's perfectly aligned with Thunderbird's mission of empowering and influencing global leaders who maximize the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to advance equitable and lasting prosperity around the world.
In addition to Temple Grandin’s talk, there were many highlights during GreenBiz 2020, including:
Mindy Lubber, President and CEO of Ceres, talked about how sustainability issues have become much more mainstream. “These are different times,” she said. “Ten years ago sustainability was a sidebar.” Today “nobody’s rolling their eyes when we say we’re there to talk about sustainability,” she explained.
Businesses today are aware that their social licenses to operate are predicated on public perceptions of their operations having more positive than negative impacts on the world. In this context, it makes sense for global businesses to focus on ensuring that their revenue streams can be maintained in a world where sustainability is no longer optional. And many companies are setting bold goals, said Lubber, who leads an organization that focuses on sustainability and works with influential investors and multinational companies. “The change we’re seeing is extraordinary, but it’s still mostly words. We need to turn words into deeds.”
“We need to continue working on the tyranny of 'short-termism,' that is the focus on quarterly earnings calls, on Wall Street,” Lubber said. Lubber urged all the attendees to tell the stories of sustainability successes. “Issues of sustainability have to be integrated all the way from the board room through to the supply chain.”
Peter McGuinness, President of Chobani, who talked about the empowerment of running a private company and not being beholden to quarterly reports. McGuinness talked about a recent partnership with Fair Trade USA to launch the first Fair Trade Dairy standard.
“We’re a yogurt maker, but we stand for more than what we make,” he said. “We’re lucky enough to be a private company … we’ve been able to play the long game.”
“The dairy industry is in trouble,” McGuinness said. “Some of it is founded and some of it is unfounded. 20,000 dairy farms have closed and no one is talking about it. Why is that?” Issues confronting the industry include animal welfare issues, worker well-being issues, and the inability to make money and profit. “Chobani’s vision for the future is all about sustainability,” he said, pointing to the company’s 6-point program called Milk Matters.
Daniel Lee, Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, spoke about the importance of social justice, of brands taking stands.
He provided an inspiring glimpse into how the foundation has worked on social justice issues for well over a century and purposefully focused its philanthropic efforts on protecting the marginalized. Lee explained that many social justice issues require patience and persistence.
“This is the most disruptive political environment in our lifetimes,” Lee said. “And although disruption may open doors in business or innovation, political disruption calls for asking questions. These are moments that pressure test values. Now more than ever, this is the time to show the country and the world what it means to be a values-driven institution.”
Integration as the next phase of sustainability was a consistent theme at GreenBiz 2020, with panelists discussing everything from viewing climate risk the same way other risks are viewed, to baking diversity and inclusion into everything a company does.
Although progress has been made by the business community, attendees recognized that there is much more to do toward achieving a more sustainable future. In response, the United Nations Global Compact introduced its new SDG Action Manager, designed to give businesses a hand in finding their starting point, understanding their impact and setting goals to track improvement.