Can Collectively become the ESPN of sustainability?

The Inside View

Can Collectively become the ESPN of sustainability?

In my baby boomer circles, I hear critical comments about the content of the website Collectively, which has a mission to make sustainable living mainstream with a focus on millennials.

I, too, scratch my head and wonder about the seemingly quirky array of stories. For instance, the headline features from the past few weekly newsletter feeds I received were:

People React to Two-Way Mirror Toilet at Glastonbury

OITNB’s (Orange is the New Black) Ruby Rose Destroys Gender Binaries in Her Stunning Video

Because You’re Worth It: L’Oreal Is Now 3D Printing Human Flesh

At first, these stories made me uncomfortable. Then I realized that I am not the target audience. The fact is, boomers like me, especially in the corporate world, have had a decades-long, massive failure reaching any consumer segment with relevant, motivating sustainability content. As a matter of reality, many companies think more of “greenmuting” to avoid getting in trouble and stirring up the activists.

Thank goodness this new approach by Collectively is starkly different. It’s a refreshing sign that they're headed in the right direction.

The platform was first launched in October. Founding partners including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Marks and Spencer, BT Group and Carlsberg, through discussions at the World Economic Forum, decided to take on this consumer void as the next big step toward scaling sustainability.

They since have corralled about 30 great brands, such as Facebook, Twitter, Nike and Google, to subjugate their own individual self-interest for the greater cause. This itself is remarkable.

These leaders know that although they are currently a small part of the editorial mix, Collectively can grow an audience, gain scale and then create a demand for more sustainable products and services, benefiting them in the longer-term. Brands are working with Collectively to share “POV” pieces, which are clearly flagged and which allow them to begin to join the organic conversations being led by Collectively.

“The sweet spot for Collectively is for us all to inspire and enable each other through the power of collective action,” said Dory Carr-Harris, managing editor of Collectively. “This means bringing all sorts of stories and initiatives to the fore — from brands as well as from change makers, organizations and individuals.”

They know that the editorial direction needs complete independence in order to resonate with the skeptical millennial audience. One whiff of Big Brother Corporate controlling the levers behind Collectively will stink things up and sink the effort.

Why Collectively must succeed

We in the sustainability movement drink the Kool-Aid a bit too much, thinking that we are rapidly scaling the movement toward the mainstream of daily life for many. Yes, we are eking out progress, but sustainable living never will come close to the norm unless many more consumers are engaged.

Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz, summarized a sobering green consumer status on Earth Day.

“Halfway through the decade, Americans' concern over most environmental issues remains stuck at moderate to low levels,” he wrote.

We desperately need Collectively to succeed and break this unsustainable pattern.

I had a friendly on-stage consumer-centric debate with Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International (CI), a few weeks ago at the NGO's Sustainable Business Council meeting.

Seligmann said he was tired of only reaching the 15 percent core green audience. He’s right. We’ve been frozen at the devout, deep green 15 percent sustainability-minded consumer since the inception of asking consumers about this — in the late 1980s.

We all believe there is a bigger umbrella of caring consumers. The millennial audience offers a whopping 38 percent segment. A broader audience of “aspirationals” portends 2 billion-plus sustainable consumers. We can do better than the diehard 15 percent.

CI is doing something about it with its Nature Is Speaking series — very different from Collectively, but in the same spirit of reaching and engaging the consumer.

CI reported that these beautifully produced videos — with Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford and other celebrities as the voice and character of Mother Nature, the Ocean, the Soil and more — have gained 2 billion impressions.

My “debate” with Seligmann was about whose responsibility it is to reach more consumers with sustainability messaging. I said companies couldn’t. We have no credibility. I offered that NGOs are the ones to accelerate it, but they aren’t that good at mainstream marketing.

Seligmann said companies are the ones to do it. We have the might and the marketing prowess.

We’re both right I think, which brings us back to Collectively. When I asked Will Gardner, the young, bright CEO of Collectively, who joined from Unilever, what the unique value-add of Collectively was, he said, “All the actors in this venture need each other. Brands bring scale and desirability. Social entrepreneurs and NGOs bring disruptive ideas and a passion for change that's truly authentic. Our audience are the participants whose daily choices make it all happen. The key is to set aside self-interest for a new kind of conversation and collaboration. Hence, Collectively.”                                                             

If anyone can do this, I believe Gardner and his ambitious, talented team can. Last year, when McDonald’s joined Collectively, we had many discussions with him. Everything I heard then, and everything I heard in my recent update with Gardner and Carr-Harris, is very encouraging.

They know they are at the beginning, that they are going through growing pains and need to evolve. Rather than criticize them, I commend them for launching the effort, forming the nonprofit entity, establishing good governance and making Collectively a reality.

I asked Mike Barry — director of Plan A of Marks & Spencer, a key strategic partner insider — his view of why Collectively was created. His insights are compelling and summarize the business case for Collectively.

“Many large businesses are now competent at managing sustainability behind the scenes — operationally and in supply chains,” he said. “They are making their existing business models 'less bad.' This is largely been done remote from the consumer. The fridge, the store, the product, the lights all looks the same to them.

“However, if we are to achieve a step change in sustainability, let's say a 75 percent reduction in the footprint of business, then we need business models that are very different from today’s. These business models cannot look 'a little different,' they have to be 'totally different' — circular, low carbon, only using sustainable raw materials and creating social value wherever they touch a human life. These sustainable business models will only come to be with the support, engagement and participation of consumers.”

My two asks

If you want to scale sustainability, let me ask you to chip in and take two actions:

First: Follow Collectively on Twitter, Facebook and their weekly newsletter. Then pass along Collectively to those in your network and ask them to follow as well.

To date, Collectively has had 1.3 million unique visitors to its platform, and has about 80,000 social followers. With GreenBiz’s network and extended reach, let’s double those numbers this month.

Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s top sustainability officer, compares Collectively to the vision and dream of ESPN, which started up in 1979.

“We are just scratching the surface of its potential,” she exuberantly explained to me.

She knows there are critics, but she makes a clarion call to stay in the game, and invites more companies to join Collectively. She reminisced of the early ESPN days. They started the first day with 30,000 viewers. Most thought they would not succeed. It took years to take hold and grow as it is today.

Of course, I am not foolhardy in love with sustainability to realize that its fan base is not the enormity of sports fans. But I agree with Perez and believe we can reach and engage those 2 billion aspirationals.

Second: Give Collectively a good look and evaluate its content. Then I invite you to come back to post your improvement comments below. Let’s give them a depth of perspective from the vast GreenBiz readership.

In polling some sustainability-minded millennials, I mostly received criticisms (“too many click-and-bait techniques,” “too sensational,” “confusing mix of content”). That’s not what I am asking for. I want your ideas to make it better and more scalable.

Beyond the 15 percent

For the sake of getting beyond the 15 percent, all of us can do something now to make a big step for Collectively’s future.

Barry makes the case very compelling:

“Collectively is a recognition we have to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of millennial consumers, confident in their desire to explore new approaches to satisfying their needs and aspirations. No brand, however large, can do this alone. The scale of change we need is too great. And who’s going to trust one company shouting, ‘We're green'? Normal competitive juices need to be set aside for the 'greater good' and this is what Collectively is doing, creating a coalition to encourage positive change.”

Finally, Collectively's future is not just as a media or storytelling platform. The individuals and organizations concerned have the opportunity to share insights on barriers and triggers to sustainable living across food, fashion, tech, travel and beyond — and then roll sleeves up and start to co-develop new, more desirable solutions than the ones that so far exist.

“We'll know we're succeeding when Collectively has ignited hundreds of collaborative ventures which end up with the launch of new products, services and campaigns which help make sustainable living the 'new normal,'” Gardner said.

I give an A to Collectively, grading its vision, strategy and heart. I refuse to grade the editorial content until it’s on its feet more. I encourage the content to go more mainstream, still appealing to millennials, but not alienating baby boomers.

I will leave it to Collectively to figure that out, but its audience needs to know that companies are part of the solution, and their support for big companies is OK when they offer sustainable solutions.

Let’s collectively make sure sustainability evolves from a movement to the mainstream.