Lucia works in Italy, for a company that makes the kinds of valves used in nearly every piece of water infrastructure in the world.

I met Lucia at a workshop session at the Sustainable Brands conference, which took place in Copenhagen for the first time, exploring how to help organisational leaders create big ideas and then act on them. Afterwards, over coffee, we chatted about our work – this was when I got to hear about the ubiquitous nature of the product her company produces, and how much opportunity lies in driving business growth through her sustainability strategy. It turns out that the right kinds of valves in the right kinds of places can play a major role in helping us reduce water use and loss – one of our most pressing global challenges, as addressed by global goal #6.

“You know, my company has nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Lucia, agreeing that it’s often the small things – like valves – that make the biggest difference to our sustainability approaches. Lucia’s company is a frontrunner in this opportunity landscape, given how sluggish their competitors are in addressing the same sustainability challenges. For me, this was an important insight over the three days of the conference. It provided affirmation that sustainability isn’t just about finding core purpose – as integral as this is to any company transformation – but about finding the solutions and opportunities behind some of the most complex, systemic and frightening problems we collectively face.

At Sustainia, we know that businesses play a crucial role in sustainable development, so it was gratifying to hear that our peers also back this position. According to a survey by GlobeScan and SustainAbility amongst sustainability professionals, presented at the conference, expectations for businesses to provide sustainability leadership are as high as they are for governments, and this is the first time in 20 years of available survey data that this has been the case. Good news for brands who have been first to move in this space, such as Unilever and IKEA, just two of the most recurrent names which came up in the survey as examples of sustainability leadership. But what about Joe Public? Does any of this matter if people outside the purpose bubble don’t give two hoots what a sustainable leader looks like? Truth is, the general public still consistently plonk global companies last on the list of most trusted institutions. Trust is the lifeblood between companies and customers; without it, we all fail. And many do, given that the average lifespan of a company in 2016 is just 14 years, down from 75 years in 1970. Clearly we have some work to do.

So how do we close the gap between leadership and trust? For the most part, I think it’s about getting off your butt and doing something. The late, great R. Buckminster Fuller said that “the best way to predict the future is to design it”. I take this to mean that we can either wait for the future to happen to us, with no role in the outcome, or we can start to shape it for ourselves. Either way, it requires a little elbow grease and some old fashioned hard work.

So I was inspired to hear a handful of important stories during the conference that showed how some sustainability leaders were getting up off their butts. The transformational Sille Krukow – of the eponymous Krukow consultancy – is working within ‘choice architecture’ to help people make better decisions which improve their lives and save businesses money. Aki Ben-Ezra, from adidas Group, is spearheading a remarkable People Strategy in Germany that provides training, integration and work opportunities for refugees. Paulette Frank, a VP at J&J for sustainability, is reframing the way we see climate change in the context of human health, asking the powerful question “what if everyone cared about the planet like their health depended on it?” And Simon Hoffmeyer Boas, Group Sustainability Director for Carlsberg, revealed the first full prototype of their 100 percent green fibre beer bottle – live on stage.

Just like us, there are many hard at work to make our future a sustainable one. Sometimes they get to do big, bold, above-the-line campaigns to talk about it – like the glossy videos we saw from L’Oreal or Heineken. And sometimes nobody knows who they are, but they get to change the world through a multiplier of tiny parts – just like Lucia’s water valves.

But maybe I should give the last word to John Elkington – Chief Pollinator at Volans, one of the four new strategic partners announced by UN Global Compact alongside Sustainia – who captured the scale of ambition and expectation, perfectly: “It’s not going to be easy but, my word, it’s going to be fun.”

Author: Henriette Weber