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Speaking Sustainably

A bleak or bright future? Depends on which conference you attend

<p>Why is the mood at Sustainable Brands so much bleaker than at LOHAS? It may be more about problems than solutions.</p>

The following is an amended version of the original post, changed at the request of the author.

Immerse yourself in the sustainability movement for a little while and you’ll hear a lot of consternation about how big our environmental problems are, how little we’re doing about them and how little we're spending to solve them.

There was a lot of that last week at the Sustainable Brands conference. Several of the main stage speakers spent the first five minutes of their 15-minute presentations telling the audience some variation of, “The future is bleak if we don't change our ways.” I found myself wanting to shout out, “We get it. Tell us what you’re doing about it!” Which, at the end of the day, is what consumers want from us as well. We know we can’t scare them into becoming more sustainable – we’ve tested all the gloom and doom scenarios with the 48 percent of the American population who don’t believe global warming is real and caused by man. Half of those non-believers would not be moved to change by any of the gloom and doom scenarios. So we don’t need to focus on the problem; we need to focus on solutions.

So why did so many Sustainable Brands speakers feel compelled to remind us of the bleak scenarios? The answer may lie in the LOHAS Forum, which I’m attending this week.

The difference between the tone of the presentations at the LOHAS Forum vs. those at Sustainable Brands is dramatic. Each speaker here so far has been focused on how bright the future could be. We’ve seen lots of presentations about projects, campaigns, movements and communication strategies all geared towards doing something to change the future without any focus on the "or else" piece of the equation – and the tone of the presentations is hopeful, upbeat. Check out (from filmmaker Douglas Gayeton) and (created and presented by 10-year-old Milo Cress) – both geared towards creating positive change.

So why the difference?

My hypothesis is that the Big Brands who make up the SB audience feel a greater weight, sense of guilt or challenge. They regularly touch millions (if not billions) of consumers and they’re all essentially tasked with figuring out how to sell less stuff while still growing their businesses (and satisfying Wall Street). It’s a seemingly impossible problem – no wonder they’re carrying a dark cloud over their heads. Further, the call to action in the SB community this year is that the Revolution Will Be Branded and brands have to take over where government is failing us and Solve The Problems. That’s a lot of pressure.

The LOHAS crowd, by contrast, is mostly small, independent brands and entrepreneurs. They don’t have to satisfy shareholders and maintain a monster sales volume. Their task is taking on the Big Brands and challenging the status quo. Which, if you’re an entrepreneur, sounds like a lot of fun. Also, by contrast, the message from the LOHAS community was Tools for a Better Tomorrow, and they tasked each of us individually to Solve the Problem. Less pressure.

So is our future bleak or bright? It depends on whether you ask a Big Brand or a little one. And it makes me wonder what would happen if they worked together -- what could they learn from each other?

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