Provocations, diatribes and lessons in courage at GreenBiz 20

Daniel Lee, Levi Strauss
Flash Gordon Murray, Pixel PhotoVideo
Noting a recent shift in corporations more willing to raise their voices today, Levi Strauss Foundation Executive Director Daniel Lee commended the change and stressed that there was no time for bystanding.

The second plenary session of GreenBiz 20 covered several threads of sustainability — from a discussion on the latest in circular practices, insights into the state of the food system and a deep dive into the Levi Strauss Foundation and a wonderfully fragmented yet delightful dialogue with animal welfare trailblazer Temple Grandin.

Here are some of my key takeaways.

Smart labels offer glimpse into the future of traceability

In a crisply paced conversation, GreenBiz Circular Economy Senior Analyst Lauren Phipps dug into how technology and partnerships are starting to shape the future of traceability with Deon Stander, vice president and general manager, retail branding and information solutions at Avery Dennison; and Kate Daly, managing director of circular economy for Closed Loop Partners.

According to Stander, the field is quick evolving from simple static barcodes to being able to capture multiple levels of data all across the supply chain thanks to smart technology and willing partners.

"We’re identifying disconnect, and we’re collecting layers of data to help us improve how we set up communities of individuals based on consumption, identify new ways to recycle products and make better connections across the value chain," he said.

Offering the apparel industry as an example, Daly offered a crash course in the immensity of the challenge ahead: "The fashion industry makes billions of products every year of which 35 percent never get sold and 85 percent end up in landfill. The opportunity for impact is endless," she said.

What will it take to scale this work? A broader ecosystem of every value chain partner working together and greater willingness from people to come to the table. As Stander summed it up, "These challenges are singularly daunting but together they become less so. We can derisk the future [of our business and our people] better together."

All eyes on farmers

At Cargill, a privately owned company that occupies a unique spot in the global food system, resilience is a loaded term. It operates in some of the world’s toughest supply chains including palm oil, soy, cocoa and beef. And protecting these resources while producing enough food consistently to feed our burgeoning populations is a conundrum well understood by Cargill Chief Sustainability Officer Ruth Kimmelshue.

"I am a fifth-generation farmer, and I am acutely aware of the role our farmers play in tackling sustainability issues," she said.

The company is deploying several programs on the ground, Kimmelshue said, including working with farmers on better farming practices, investing in and introducing new technologies, as well as figuring out its role in influencing public policy where possible. 

Her advice: Farmers are natural stewards of their land and have every incentive to protect it. Don’t blame them, work with them, create the incentives and show collective signals for progress.

Temple Grandin, GreenBiz 20
Temple Grandin: Get out of your offices and go see how things are done on the ground.

Leading with values at the Levi Strauss Foundation  

In conversation with veteran journalist Marc Gunther, Daniel Lee, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, provided an inspiring glimpse into how the foundation has worked on social justice issues for well over a century and purposefully focused its philanthropic focus on protecting the marginalized.

"We were the first foundation to address the AIDs epidemic, and we have continued to focus on it long after it's faded from media headlines. We’ve raised our voices on issues that few other companies have had the courage to address such as LGBTQ rights. And it’s because we practice values-based philanthropy," Lee offered.

Cautioning that the latest disruptive trend is not always the best way forward, Lee advised that many social justice issues require patience and persistence. "The issues marginalized communities face are systemic, and it takes time and commitment to root out systemic flaws," he said.

How has Lee continued to make the case for investing in social justice issues in a time when there are plenty of issues the company and foundation could be addressing?

Alluding to the 2016 U.S. election, he offered: "We’re in a unique time where our values are being pressure tested. Hard-fought gains in diversity and inclusion are under threat — and our CEO made it clear that we must double down on protecting the marginalized. And this dictum is not divergent from how we operate as a business," he said, adding that the last two years also have been the best two years for Levi Strauss as a business.

Noting a recent shift in corporations more willing to raise their voices today, Lee commended the change and stressed that there was no time for bystanding.

Suits get out of the office!

The final speaker of the morning plenaries was provocateur and leading author, scientist and speaker on autism and animal behavior, Temple Grandin. In a delightfully fragmented and fast-paced conversation with GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower, she touched a lot of issues from animal welfare, the value of visual thinkers, change management as well as her advice on the way forward. In summary, she offered three pieces of advice:

  • Focus on understanding what’s optimal, not maximum (alluding to the distressing practice of maximizing animal outputs at the expense of deteriorating animal health).
  • Get out of your offices and go see how things are done on the ground.
  • Share your solutions widely and show the way.

The clock is ticking

But it was CDP President Bruno Sarda who set the tone for the day with his optimistic warning: "The clock is ticking. We cannot afford to lose. We have 10 years to make things right and companies are quickly running out of excuses to avoid disclosing their impact and acting on climate."

And it’s no longer enough for companies to simply focus on their own carbon footprint. "We need scale. We’re talking trillions of dollars in opportunities. And we need every single business to step up and show the appetite for transformational change — because incremental is not going to cut it anymore," he declared.  

It’s time to make history. And you get to decide what side of history you want to be on.

Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 12 to remove information about how Ralph Lauren uses Avery Dennison's labeling technology.