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Six Takeaways from GreenBiz 21

This was my first full GreenBiz experience. Sure, I streamed some of the virtual sessions in previous years, but I did not pay as close attention to the event's overarching themes. I have yet to attend the in-person conference, which takes place annually in Arizona each February, and will hopefully resume next year.

It was no surprise that the conference audience was full of bright and motivated sustainability professionals and business leaders from large multinational companies and sustainability service or technology providers. The conference conversations were categorized into one or more of the following themes: Circular Economy, Finance and ESG, Net Zero, Resilient Supply Chains, Social Justice, Stakeholders and Storytelling, and Sustainability Leadership.

Overwhelmingly, the conversations focused on less talk and more action, moving from incremental change to systemic change and what business leadership is necessary to accomplish this. Company values have seemed to finally move their way from a talking piece on headquarters wall and into the hearts and minds of executives eager to drive impact. There was an overwhelming focus on the social side of sustainability and how equity is necessary and both an opportunity for business to lead more effectively and to innovate.

Like all conferences that offer concurrent breakout sessions, I found it hard to choose which sessions to attend. Do I follow my own interests or the ones I thought would be most relevant and useful to you, our Wisconsin business community? I did my best at balancing both; however, I was mostly drawn to the leadership conversations. Not only because it's a personal interest and passion, but leadership as a concept has long fascinated me. What qualities and conditions drive some to be benevolent executives, effective stewards, or continuous risk-takers? And now, more so than ever, what will prevail to be our 21st Century legacy? And who and how will drive us there? These are some of the questions I find myself wondering, anybody with me? (or email me what questions are rolling around in your mind by selecting contact us, under "about" here).

Here are my six key GreenBiz 21 takeaways:

  1. The S in Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) is where E was a decade ago. There was no session I attended where social sustainability was not mentioned or a large part of the conversation. Whether talking about resilient supply chains, decarbonization, risk mitigation, or finance, companies mentioned how they have developed a plan or are developing one that brings diversity, equity, and inclusion into the core pillars of their strategy and action plans. Martina Cheung, President of S&P Global Market Intelligence and head of ESG for S&P Global, reiterated that their global studies continue to illustrate that companies with more diverse boards and leadership perform better overall financially.

  2. Walk the talk through integration. It's no longer enough to set ambitious goals; inaction now costs more than action. Your sustainability strategy needs to be woven into your organization's values and business model. That means intreated into your board structure, your business planning, your overall strategy. Into executive pay, into risk management, into the culture. I think you get the picture. It is time to integrate!

  3. The race to zero is on. While bold innovations are needed, and scaling solutions remains a challenge, businesses are grappling with how to get to zero carbon emissions. Thankfully, efficiency gains are still a significant priority, as are reduction goals, and conversations around innovation and technology are ramping up and moving into action. Overwhelmingly, companies are committed yet grabbling with how they get to zero.

  4. Circularity is a solution, but we still need to produce less. It is not enough to recycle or even design for recyclability. We need circular systems that innovate better products across the value chain. We cannot just be thinking about dealing with waste (especially plastics) already in the environment. Instead, we need a societal shift to needing less and making less.

  5. Biodiversity Gets a Seat at the Table. Indigenous people are 5% of the population, yet they hold 80% of the world's biodiversity. Read that again; it's mind-blowing. We can learn from our indigenous people about how to better connect to and tend the land. We can also look to these thriving ecosystems for design ideas and solutions. (From someone who studied Permaculture and lived in Thailand and Costa Rica, I can personally attest to both the abundance and resilience that comes from a diverse ecosystem. Thinking about your businesses as an ecosystem can help you get there.)

  6. Moral Leadership is Necessary. By everyone, but particularly business leaders. We need a cultural shift away from hyper-individualism to interdependence. We must understand that all things are intrinsically connected, that human health is dependent on the health of the environment, and that the health of the environment is dependent on humans! We need systems thinkers and moral leaders that build value through multi-stakeholders, long-term models. Without this, none of the other takeaways are possible.

I also want to encourage sustainability professionals to learn the language of finance, or "CFO speak" as Bob Willard called it at our conference in December. Your CFO's can and should become your strongest allies in driving sustainable change. It appears that company's with CFOs on board are making progress at greater strides! (Listen to The CFO Business Case for Sustainability by Bob Willard at WSBC 2020 Conference HERE.)

Overall, the conference was inspiriting, and I enjoyed seeing some of our Wisconsin leaders in the audience (shout out to Jenna Kunde of JCI, Nathan Nissen at Kohler, and Laura Loucks at Inpro). Although I walked away hopeful, I still feel none of these takeaways are possible without leadership. During the conference, Michelle More, CEO of Groundswell said, "Sustainability leaders need to see their jobs as powerful pathways of influence." No matter what your job is or who you work for, you have the power to influence change right where you are at.

From my experience, sustainability professionals don't always see their jobs that way, and they often feel challenged by the need to become better leaders or better influencers. It is a skill we often underestimate, and precisely why I have committed to making it a larger priority this year, both for myself (I recently signed up for a serval month leadership training) and our Wisconsin Sustainable Business Community. We will be leveraging our internal skill set to bring you a workshop late this summer focused on leadership development for sustainability professionals. My goal is to support you in becoming both a better leader and a better influencer. I hope you will join the rest of the sustainable business community and me to step up to the challenge.

To learn more about the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council visit the website or JOIN the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Community HERE.

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