Braving headwinds to redefine the Good Life: Personal impressions from Sustainable Brands Detroit
Dr. Thomas Schröder | Jul 6th 2017

The corporate sustainability scene in the US is alive and well

As home of the North American International Auto Show, the Cobo Center in Detroit generally sees quite different crowds to the broad collection of sustainability professionals who entered its doors in May this year. Yet, with its commitment to environmental stewardship, it was the perfect venue for this year’s flagship event. In our second year as global renewable energy partner, South Pole Group was proud to (co-)host and organise three sessions during four active and enriching days of industry encounters.

Participants included a wealth of North American (plus some European) blue chip companies from the consumer goods, chemical, automotive, financial, and professional services sectors, as well as a surprising amount of local and state/provincial government representatives. Although many of the sessions focused on the branding side of things, the attendees covered a broad specter of functions within their respective organisations: sustainability managers, supply chain and marketing professionals, procurement people, as well as many C-level executives and other decision makers.

Against the backdrop of President Trump’s imminent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the tone of the Detroit conference was defiant and optimistic. Many of the conversations I had with other participants confirmed that the spirit of embracing climate change and seizing it as a business opportunity is buoyant and very much alive in the American economy. Market actors want to get on with their agendas. They are pragmatic and rather undeterred by the mixed signals and inconsistency of leadership coming out of Washington DC.

The annual industry get together convinces in many ways

The quality of the sessions and presentations was exceptional: Sustainable Brands once again managed to blend inspiring contributions from visionaries and thought leaders with best-practice corporate examples. This encompassed ways of putting sustainability into practice for the benefit of the organisation, and also for the environment and affected communities. It was amazing to see how key initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Science-Based Targets are guiding more and more companies on their sustainability journey. This of course is a virtuous cycle: for the companies, it provides much needed direction and a sense of contributing to a greater purpose. With respect to the initiatives, more heavyweights signing up means more relevance and momentum to achieve goals and to maximise impact.

From a Marketing perspective, attending the conference was a fantastic learning experience. While there is a host of sustainability and climate change-related conferences, Sustainable Brands fills a crucial niche in linking these topics to corporate branding, identity and positioning. Hearing a great variety of practical examples of how both startups and large corporations are harnessing the power of sustainability, which certainly is at the top of many of their customers priorities, was truly inspiring.

My main takeaways include:

  • The commitments by American and global corporates to the UN SDG and the Science-based Targets are growing. The likes of Walmart, Kellogg’s and UPS delivered inspiring ‘how to’ examples for others to follow
  • While this alignment with UN SDG helps companies define what they want to achieve, contributing to sustainable development is the real goal
  • When companies become active, the outcomes of their actions are tangible impacts, such as social and community, environmental or economic benefits
  • Carbon emission reduction projects are the conduit that enable companies to achieve these impacts and to contribute to the global sustainable development agenda
  • Becoming part of this effort really is a journey: many pioneers have successfully driven this for years, others are getting started and learning the ropes, while some are still watching from the sidelines
  • Pursuing a sustainable development agenda and reducing environmental footprints are complementary goals
  • For industry leaders, such as Philips Lighting, the end-game is to become carbon neutral
  • It was great to see how many participants were already aware of South Pole Group’s global penguin brand, our mission and our offering

Detroit is worth the trip

Last but not least, having such an eclectic and diverse mix of people convening in such a post-industrial city as Detroit, which is experiencing a definitive economic and cultural boom, was also really fun. The exchanges and the networking opportunities were manifold: from co-hosting sessions with Robbert Slooten of Philips Lighting, Sean Kinghorn of Intuit, Veronica Juarez of Lyft, and Matt Ellis of Measurabl to visiting the Henry Ford’s legendary Rouge Plant, to the really diverse and super energetic activation hub, to various burger dinners all over town, to big band action in Detroit’s Eastern Market, back alley cocktails and penthouse parties, the action never really stopped during these four days in Detroit!

The Detroit Cobo Center, home of #SBDetroit2017

The Detroit South Pole penguins: Stefan Rösch, Natalia Gorina, Cassandra Nattrass, Thomas Schröder

The panel for our session “Sustainable Transportation: Tech and Techniques”

Inspiring panels and energising speakers all along

Detroit’s famous ‘Ford Field’ baseball stadium, viewed from KoAnn’s penthouse party venue

The big band at the Detroit Eastern Market Wednesday night party

The ‘blow your mind’ burger at the Detroit Townhouse restaurant

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