How a trio of female visionaries leaves me hopeful

Last week I attended the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. It was larger than Fortune Brainstorm Green, which I talked about in my previous post on the necessity of making sustainability about “us.” I have to admit I was a bit reluctant to go, but as I already had paid for the day, I cleared my agenda and put in an appearance.

The morning was devoted to the plenary events, the best of which, in my opinion, was the one hosted by Alexander Collot d'Escury, CEO of Desso, a carpet company specializing in the “circular” approach of reusing old products to manufacture new ones, who in my opinion gave a presentation that was honest and heartfelt. The rest was much like Fortune, which really made me feel we have a massive problem that the incremental approach won't help solve.

So, at lunch I decided to do some networking, which resulted in my meeting some really nice people and having an interesting conversation with reps from a major glass company about recycling. I then went back to the breakouts, then for some reason decided I had had enough and left. But I hadn’t gone five miles toward home when I rethought that decision, made an abrupt U-turn and headed back to the conference. When I got there I joined the crowd attending a Chipotle-driven marketing seminar, but, again, was less than impressed by what I heard, and started to think I perhaps should have just continued heading toward home.

It was then that I randomly walked into a breakout on “feminine energy” presented by three female executives from widely divergent sectors -- Kellie McElhaney, a founder of UC Berkeley’s Center for Responsible Business; Paulette Frank, vice president of sustainability and environmental health and safety for Johnson & Johnson; and Gayle Schueller, 3M’s vice president of global sustainability.

And for the first time, I really was encouraged about the prospects of sustainability becoming about “us.”

As I sat through the opening comments, I thought to myself, “I’m not sure I have ever heard this type of honesty from high-level executives before.” And as the discussion moved into the role of emotion in sustainability initiatives, I couldn't help but think, “Wow, this is finally the conversation we should be having if these efforts are really going to resonate with enough consumers to encourage companies to take them to the next level.”

I ended up spending most of the afternoon absorbed in and captivated by the ideas emanating from this inspired and visionary trio, and returned from the conference with a renewed sense of optimism. Only for the first time, my hope for the future of the planet and its inhabitants was grounded in the prospect of a feminine energy-oriented, emotional approach to solving our most pressing problems instead of the traditional profit-and-testosterone-driven male-dominated modus operandi.

And it occurred to me that maybe — just maybe — it’s time for us guys to step aside, or at least take a long vacation — go fishing, play golf, whatever it is that turns us on — and let members of the other gender take over the job of keeping Mother Earth habitable. 

After all, haven’t we done enough already?

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group. Images of (from left) Kellie McElhaney via Sustainable Brands; Paulette Frank via Vimeo; and Gayle Schueller via Sustainable Brands