Partnership Development

5 Key Messages From This Year's Conference Season

Article | December 11, 2019

The holiday season is in full swing, which means that fall conference season is now a memory. Each fall, numerous events across the country, and around the globe, seem to convene within the same short season. While it's a busy time, it's hard to pass up such great opportunities to connect with new and old friends, learn from others, and share what we've been up to. This fall was no exception and Resonators were out in full force.

Resonance’s 2019 Conference Season Recap

James Bernard and Elina Sarkisova presented at Transform, Ethical Corp’s responsible supply chain summit in the Netherlands. Building on the information in our recent white paper, their session helped attendees better understand the complex ecosystem of finance for sustainable development, including how to reduce supply chain risk through co-investment in new partnerships and innovative finance.

Ben Amick helped USAID kick off the $35M Water and Energy for Food Grand Challenge at SOCAP in San Francisco, with the launch of "An Innovator's Guide Book” for entrepreneurs working at the intersection of water, agriculture, and energy. As author of the guide book, Ben shared lessons relevant to companies who are just getting started—or looking to grow—in frontier and emerging markets around the world.

Katelin Kennedy moderated a panel on transparent supply chains at Global Washington in Seattle, highlighting how leading companies and organizations are tackling the challenge of transparency. Leaders at Starbucks, Costco, and Fair Trade USA discussed how far these efforts have come, how far we still have to go, and how tech is only a part of the solution to get us there.

Tim Moore presented the Partnership Assurance Model at Invest Aqua in the Netherlands, highlighting the output of a collaboration with Resonance, Seafood Watch, and seven other organizations. Tim shared this new way to co-design, implement, and verify improvements in aquaculture production, and lead a discussion on country action planning. Conversations continue this week in Monterey, California.

Kimberly Davies Lohman (myself), presented an "SDG Surprise" pitch in Global Washington’s member competition, highlighting how SDG17 is the enabler of all sustainable development goals. Cross-sector partnerships sometimes seem unlikely, but interests can be aligned, and outcomes can have powerful ripples. For example, empowering women can improve farmer yields and incomes, and with that access to food, medicine, education, and more.

Additionally, our attendance at fall conferences—including Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR), Sustainable Brands New Metrics, Society for International Development, Innovation Leader, Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, Water and Health, and more—posed great learning opportunities. As staff compared notes, we saw some similar themes repeated throughout events across the globe.

Five key messages from this year’s sustainability conferences:

1. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Collaboration is critical if businesses want to reach business and sustainability objectives, and for society to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. From keynotes to side conversations, companies are acknowledging collaboration as a tool, and as an indicator that teams know their limits, focus and invest wisely, and work with others to strategically fill gaps. Collaborations can take many forms—from cross-sector co-investment partnerships, to targeted pre-competitive problem solving, to industry multi-member coalitions, or internal cross-department collaboration. A keynote speaker from Mars stated, “Collaboration is the only path forward given the magnitude of what we’re facing.” However, true partnerships can take time. They must involve the right stakeholders within each organization, and alignment is just the starting line.

2. Stakeholders are a voice for good.

As social media spreads information faster than ever, stakeholder groups like employees, investors, and customers can access and share data and opinions with ease. This amplification can strengthen a company's brand or create instant backlash. The power of employee interests was highlighted in several sessions, as the war for talent is a huge concern. With millennials opting to work at companies that share their values, companies must listen and consider employees as an important stakeholder group when making decisions. The tech industry has been under pressure in 2019 for failing to heed employee requests, which may serve as a warning to other industries.

3. Technology and transparency are the means, not the end.

While technology allows better traceability and transparency across supply chains, a lot of the hype is misplaced. Blockchain is enabling some great pilots, but many panelists are cautious to use the 'B' word, as eyebrows quickly raise. One panelist even joked after mentioning blockchain, "Well, we know blockchain won't cure cancer.” There are many challenges to implementing technology across supply chains, such as connectivity, incentives, and capacity, and there is a growing universal understanding that technology alone cannot create transparency. Another panelist took it one step further, to say that transparency is not the goal, but rather data. I'd argue one more step further: that the purpose for the data is to better inform decision-making. Supply chain transparency aims to drive more sustainable business decisions.

4. Getting buy-in and making the business case for sustainability.

The case for sustainability is clear to many at sustainability events, but not to all decision makers back at headquarters. Companies need to explore metrics beyond a typical ROI, but should also remember that many are already fatigued by existing reporting requirements. Pairing metrics with storytelling can be a powerful combination, both internally and externally. However, panelists reminded us that a storytelling call to action should be simple and clear. One panelist emphasized the importance of tailoring narratives to individual leaders, since each leader's motivation to act will be different. Another panel focused on where sustainability leaders should sit in a company to be most influential—the consensus was that there is no one place (for instance, a Chief Sustainability Officer versus a supply chain leader), but placement depends on a company’s structure and each team’s strengths.

5. Sustainability to increase good, not just decrease bad.

As an executive at Rio Tinto stated, “Sustainability has to be core to the strategy and decision making of any business.” During side conversations, I spoke to many attendees about how sustainability strategy is becoming central to company decisions. Sustainability today is not just about reducing compliance risk, but also creating new opportunities. A shift from a focus on compliance to new circular and sustainable opportunities can increase brand recognition, decrease risk, increase revenue potential, and reduce costs. Additionally, stakeholders, consumers, investors, and employees are beginning to demand a net positive sustainability measurement and communication to limit green washing. As we move on from corporate social responsibility (CSR) to shared value to the next sustainability frontier, we know that sustainability cannot be a side project important to a few passionate individuals. It must be core to a company’s strategy, woven throughout operations and ethos.

Resonance supports private sector companies to bring their sustainability vision to life in frontier markets.

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.