By Anne Bahr Thompson as featured in Medium on 16 June, 2020.

2020 prologue

In June 2018, I had the honor of giving the opening keynote at the Beauty of Sourcing with Respect Conference in Paris hosted by Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT). The conference, which was attended by a wider range of people than other events at which I had spoken, was a transformational moment in the journey I had been on since writing my book, Do Good.

Rather than mostly marketers, brand consultants, communications experts and other related business professionals, the audience included sustainability and biodiversity professionals, environmentalists, people from the UN, advocates for access benefit sharing, and non-profit leaders from across the globe. People dedicated to making the planet sustainable and business more responsible. And with whom I wasn’t certain my message of Brand Citizenship would resonate. Yet it did — and did so very strongly.

The experience emphasized that to be more responsible to the planet, treat all employees and people across the supply chain more fairly and align core business activities to achieve the SDGs, business must reach beyond its own borders and proactively organize multi-sector coalitions to work in partnership tackling ambitious initiatives. As COVID-19 has exposed injustice and inequity in our social system, this message is more urgent than ever. Ironically, this year’s UEBT Conference — Business for biodiversity: Building a shared future for life on Earth -was postponed due to the pandemic. In so many ways, the novel coronavirus highlights the relevance and importance of the event.

Last week, nearly two years to the day since the 2018 Conference, someone I met there reached out to me, sharing that my words, which were eye-opening and inspiring to him at the time, had continued to provide him with inspiration in his job. That the vision I painted helped him hold a vision of a world in which businesses and consumers behaved more responsibly together — and worked alongside NGOs and governments to better the world and achieve the SDGs.

“Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine walking into a grocer, a chemist or even your favorite clothing store in 5 years. As you look at the shelves, peruse items on the counters, or even flip through clothing on the rack, imagine how your choices might be different if the packaging on the food and cosmetics, or tags on the clothing listed more than the ingredients, nutrition and materials used to make these goods. Imagine if all these product labels included a standardized rating that helped you to compare how much energy and water were used in making the product, how ethical the manufacturer’s supply chain was, and how much of its profits the company contributed to good causes.

As this picture of our future manifests, companies across industries and of all sizes are looking inward at their production processes, supplier relationships, waste production, and much more, as well as outwardly at what matters most to people, in order to effectively develop their brands. Today, it’s more necessary than ever for companies to be committed to responsible business practices and identify the social and environmental issues that matter most to all their stakeholders, not just investors.

And, he noted that with the economic devastation from COVID-19, people were again facing the same problems they were at the end of 2011, the time of the first study that ultimately led to my model of Brand Citizenship, and were seeking outlets to express their fear and anger at the inequity in society.

If you think back, you may remember the end of 2011 was another election year in the US. One in which bipartisanship was very strong — albeit not as strong as what we are witnessing today. People were being told the economy had turned around. Yet most weren’t feeling this. Rather than listing the more typical New Year’s resolutions like lose weight or quit smoking as the things they hoped to do in 2012, many referenced more important and fundamental wishes. It was as if they needed a place to vent because of the insecurity and uncertainty they were feeling about the economy and global events. People told us things like:

  • I plan on spending very little in 2012; I will only use cash and we’ll have no vacations.
  • I hope that I’ll be able to complete college.
  • To stay safe from crime.”

He hoped that my words might motivate corporations to embrace an ethos of sustainability and doing good and ultimately change the models and policies that define their operations.

Business is a social and cultural institution as much as it is a source of economic prosperity. Large multinationals, midsize companies, and start-up social enterprises alike have an opportunity to advance society, sustain the planet, and do good in the world, while simultaneously earning a profit for their shareholders. Like my journey uncovering the five steps of Brand Citizenship, the journey to become a company that embraces an ethos of doing good is not a linear one. Every company must approach it differently dependent upon its culture and value proposition. Perhaps most importantly, the journey is not one that has an ending. This is not a check the box type of exercise. Each time you or a competitor does good or people’s views change, the bar is raised and you must deliver more.

More and more people are demanding that companies break down the boundaries that divide what they return to shareholders from what they offer customers, employees, suppliers, other stakeholders, and even the environment. More and more people know this is the only way we will be able to sustain our lifestyles and our planet. And more and more it will be essential for those responsible for sustainability and ethical sourcing to communicate how these elements of the interdependent circle of Brand Citizenship benefit customers, employees, business operations, and investors as much as society and the planet.”

As conversations around sustainability, the SDGs, the circular economy, ESG, etc., naturally accelerate as we navigate a landscape defined by an increasing frequency of “once in a lifetime” moments, the ME2WE continuum of Brand Citizenship provides a mechanism for a new definition of corporate success.

My full keynote speech from the UEBT 2018 Beauty of Sourcing with Respect Conference here.