Wednesday, April 15, 2009

After the event: April kitchen table discussion on sustainability

"As a society, we've always assumed that growth is both in inevitable and positive: 'bigger is better,' 'you grow or you die.' When our economies sour, as they inevitable do, we simply look for new technologies, new resources, and new consumers. In America we have always been able to go west whenever we needed more breathing space or more virgin groves of trees to cut or more prairies to till. Now, we hunt new export markets and new Third World resources for raw materials. Free trade is replacing the microchip as our new savior. But Third World resources are close to exhaustion, and many world economies, burdened by debt, are no longer viable dumping grounds for our manufactured goods."
-Yvon Chouinard in Patagonia: The Next Hundred Years.

So what is sustainability and how are companies communicating sustainable practices?

PRSA members, students and guests gathered this morning at The Seattle Times for a kitchen table discussion about this challenging topic.

Sheryl Wiser of Cascade Harvest moderated a panel including: Marty McDonald, the founder and Creative Director of egg; Hilary Bromberg, egg strategic director; Bryan Cohen, founding partner of Colehour+Cohen; and Elisa Murray, director of communications for Global Partnerships.

Left to right: Elisa Murray, Marty McDonald, Hilary Bromberg, Bryan Cohen

In an effort to define sustainability, panelists explained how communicators need to understand the idea of a product or service's life cycle. They encouraged professionals to consider how business can create prosperity that won't come at an expense to future generations.

"Sustainability is defined," McDonald said, "But unattainable."

McDonald emphasized that companies are 'course correcting' with a willingness to put effort into doing business in a less unsustainable state. He asked audience members to consider Patagonia's 100-year business plan and think about what companies can do to ensure that people seven generations from now can maintain the same quality of life that they have today.

Unfortunately, companies today communicate with undefined terms (e.g. local, green, natural, eco-friendly, etc...) to promote brands that may not deliver.

"[Companies] put out these good words and people, by association, will come to see your company as a good company," McDonald said.

In reality, people are confused by the terms that are out there.

There's a confluence of things in people heads, Murray explained. People combine and confuse the ideals of social responsibility, health, simple living and control, and we find that there is a conscious consumer continuum of what people understand.

"It is our mission as communicators to close that gap," Cohen said.

The best businesses are:

1. Inclusive- Companies that address the social, economic and environmental "triple bottom line".

2. Hold values company-wide- Companies that are committed to their values from the top down and the bottom up.

3. Engage in a dialogue about progress- Companies that let consumers know where they've been, where they are and where they're headed.

4. Walking the walk- Rather than throwing out words, successful businesses integrate sustainable values into the decisions they make.

5. Understand their higher calling- Companies that know what the social and environmental impact of their product or service is and are aware of the true cost of that impact.

The discussion of sustainability (environmental+social+economic) is not a fad. As communicators, the panelists encouraged due diligence and effective research.

How do you figure out what you don't know and what you can't answer and then address those weaknesses? This is our responsibility as professionals.

Elisa Murray & Sheryl Wiser

PRSA Board Member, Bev Holland, speaks to event attendees

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