WEF14: Why is Sustainability So Hard?

This post first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog (Jan. 24, 2014)

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Sunrise over the Swiss Alps, Davos 2014. Photo by Good Guide co-founder, Dara O’Rourke.

One thing that has surprised me in my time in Davos is how often I’ve heard CEOs complain about how hard it is to promote sustainability and social responsibility inside their companies.

In session after session, it has been clear that even the most powerful CEOs feel that transforming their organizations is hard.

Very hard.

In one of the few “public” sessions where CEOs talked about this, the panelists presented a long list of impediments to changing business for the good, including: a few bad apple companies (which have sunk public trust in corporations to record lows); investors (which think too short-term); the media (which only runs negative stories and beats up on them even when they try CSR); corporate boards (that are too share price focused); government regulation (which causes more problems than it solves); and consumers (who think green products perform worse and won’t pay more).

My first thought is that these sound like a bunch of scapegoats. (Interestingly, I haven’t heard the same litany in sessions about technological disruptions and supply chain innovations.) Further, what about the role of the CEOs themselves? And of the ways that some corporations undermine the institutions needed to address global sustainability issues?

But my second thought is that these are believable stoppers to sustainability. Short-term investors? Check. Conflicted boards? Probably. Selfish consumers? Sure. Although no single one of these is the root cause of sustainability failures, together they create enough barriers to block most sustainability initiatives inside corporations.

That brings me to my third thought, if each of these barriers can block sustainability initiatives, then how do we align systems and incentives to move sustainability forward? And can strong leaders push past these blockages? For instance, it was fantastic to hear that Richard Goyders, the CEO of Wesfarmers, no longer meets with short-term investors. And to hear Marks & Spencer and Unilever talk about engaging consumers in new ways.

But clearly, unique CEOs and individual corporate actions are not enough. We need partnerships – including NGO and government action – to address these blockages, and to create incentives for firms to push through them. We need ways to align supply chains to solve problems, instead of allowing any one barrier to block everything.

As one CEO quipped: Average CEOs do what average investors demand.

It’s time for exceptional leaders to create partnerships to push past these limits.

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WEF14: New millennial consumers and sustainability

This post first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog (Jan. 23, 2014)

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Dara O’Rourke, a professor at UC Berkeley and the co-founder of GoodGuide.com, is the chair of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Sustainable Consumption.

The next generation of consumers is clearly on the minds of the CEOs and CMOs at Davos. A number of sessions have touched on what emerging “millennial” consumers of China, India, Brazil, and beyond will look like in 10 years. And similarly, how the next generation of consumers in the US and Europe will act.

Everyone seems to agree that new technologies, and in particular emerging mobile, wearable, ubiquitous, transparent information systems, are radically changing how new millennials see and interact with products, brands, and retailers, what they demand of them, and what they want for their futures. Consumers can know more, and they obviously share much more than ever before. The pace of this change is only accelerating.

However, brands and retailers are frustrated that their efforts to engage consumers around sustainability have had limited impact to date. Increasingly, they admit in closed-door sessions, that they simply don’t know how to talk to the new millennials.

These new consumers, in fact, bristle at even being called consumers. They think of themselves as makers, users, sharers, and sometimes participants in the production of products, services, content, etc. They have values. They get status from different things than their parents did. And they want to support products and companies that align with their values.

But as one CEO lamented: are young consumers really disruptive enough? Do they care about labor and environment issues? Will they change their demand for cheap fast fashion when they learn about tragedies like in Bangladesh? Or do they just want new sexy products at low prices?

These questions have bottom line impacts as CEOs assess how to redesign products and business models to meet new demands. And they clearly have implications for global sustainability. Will these new millennials consume as Northern consumers have? Or might they embrace sharing (rather than owning) and the circular economy? Will they even have jobs to pay for the goods and services these companies sell.

There is clearly significant potential to engage these new millennials, and in particular to support their participation in efforts to rethink products and business to promote sustainability.

The good news on this is that some of the largest retailers and brands in the world are studying these issues and beginning to develop programs to try to engage the next generation of consumers/makers/citizens.

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GoodGuide Joins UL Environment

We are very excited to announce that GoodGuide has been acquired by UL Environment, a business unit of UL (Underwriters Laboratories) that’s focused on helping people make, market, find, and trust greener, healthier, more sustainable products. This merger brings together two organizations deeply committed to sustainability and product transparency. (You can read more about our partnership here.)

Don’t worry: GoodGuide’s web and mobile apps are not going away. We will continue to operate “business as usual,” and our team will still be building tools and rating products to help you find the best products for you and your family. We will also be working to enhance and optimize those tools and rating systems to serve even more users and prospective customers as part of our longer-term goals.

Joining UL Environment provides GoodGuide with a strong and trusted commercial partner that is mission-aligned and that will help ensure the continued availability of GoodGuide information. UL is one of the oldest and most respected brands in the product testing, certifying, and information-sharing space. By becoming part of UL Environment, we will be able to continue to improve the quality of the information we use in our ratings and recommendations.

THANK YOU so much for your support over the last several years. We look forward to this next phase in our mission to empower people with better information that helps move the market towards safer, healthier, and greener products.

Sincerely,

George Consagra
CEO

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The Naked Brand

GoodGuide is honored to be featured in a powerful new documentary film – which is having its San Francisco Premiere today. The Naked Brand is:

about how corporations can help save the planet one small step at a time. It’s an introduction to a bright new future where companies tell the truth and work hard to create better products and a better planet. Corporations have incredible influence on the world we live in and that’s given them free reign to pollute, collude and mislead us, but advances in technology are rapidly making them accountable not just to shareholders, but to everyone. Now that we have constant access to the truth about the products we use and the ethics of the companies behind them, big brands are realizing that looking great isn’t enough. It’s time to actually be great.

The documentary features interesting interviews with some of the leading thinkers in the world of corporate marketing and communications: Alex Bogusky, Tony Hsieh, Yvon Chouinard, Keith Weed, and more. 

Check out the film and the growing movement towards radical transparency.

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Spring Cleaning, Naturally

Even though this spring may not feel very different from our exceptionally warm winter, it’s still time to do a little spring cleaning.  But be careful – cleaning products are actually among the most significant sources of exposure to toxic chemicals in the home. They can contribute to indoor air pollution, and can be poisonous if ingested or even touched. According to the U.S. Poison Control Center, household cleaners are responsible for about 10% of all toxic exposures. So are all “green” cleaning products safe for you and the environment? And how do you know if that “natural” cleaner really is free of harmful toxins? Here are some quick tips to clean your way to a safe and healthy home:

  • Watch for generic terms such as “fragrance”, which can conceal ingredients that may cause allergies and other health effects.
  • Consult GoodGuide to see if your product of choice contains any chemicals of high risk, such as triclosan, alkyl phenol ethoxylates or ammonium quaternary compounds.
  • Choose products that are efficiently packaged in recyclable containers.
  • Look for cleaning products whose formulations have been certified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program or GreenSeal.
  • You can always make your own cleaners. For example, vinegar and baking soda will unclog a drain.
  • Read more about issues with household cleaners here.
As an added bonus, watch GoodGuide co-founder Dara O’Rourke test some of the most popular “green” cleaners:
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100 Calories of Sugar

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes aired an eye-opening piece about the harmful effects sugars can have on our body. Especially striking was the recommended limit for added sugars issued by the American Heart Association: 100 calories of added sugar per day for women (150 calories for men). We wondered what 100 calories of added sugar really meant when it came to dietary habits. Our findings are presented in the infographic below.

(PS – Sugar isn’t the only thing to consider when trying to eat a balanced diet. It’s just a pretty big piece of the puzzle since we eat so much of it.)

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March Good News Roundup

The consumer’s power to influence business was highlighted in the news this month, further exemplifying that they will be the ones to really drive change. GoodGuide was also mentioned frequently as an important tool for empowerment, as shown in some of this month’s highlights:

New York Times “Is It Safe To Play Yet?” Profiling parents who go through extreme lengths to ensure their children are living in homes free of chemicals and toxins, GoodGuide is listed as a prominent resource.

Triple Pundit “What 4 Global Trends Will Drive 21st Century Investing?” GoodGuide’s increasing popularity is used as an example of how the demand for ‘good’ is becoming an important trend this year.

Wall Street Journal “How Product Sustainability Matters To Consumers” This video features GoodGuide co-founder Dara O’Rourke at the WSJ Eco:nomics conference discussing why consumers are willing to pay extra money for sustainable products.

Ireland:AM “Beauty: Top 4 Apps” Recognized internationally, GoodGuide was featured as one of the best beauty apps because of the extensive information it provides about the safety of popular grooming products.

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