Inspiring Takeaways from Sustainable Brands 18 in Vancouver

Technology, plant-based diets, and plastics were the most discussed topics at this year’s Sustainable Brands conference.

Each year, representatives from a broad spectrum of industries gather in North America for the Sustainable Brands (SB) conference to discuss how businesses can collaborate to increase environmental, social and economic sustainability. This year’s conference in Vancouver, Canada, marked the first time the event was outside of the United States. The location served as a beautiful and inspiring setting for discussions both inside and outside the conference venue. One of the novel features of this conference is that it takes participants outside to hike, plant trees and tour the local environment to remind us of the natural beauty we are working to preserve. Three major themes were apparent at SB 18.

  1. Technology: Friend or Foe of Sustainability?

    Technology can be tricky, as many plenary speakers and breakout sessions at the conference noted. Apps, games and blockchain can revolutionize sustainability by reaching and engaging more people or increasing the traceability and transparency of systems. Yet, technology can also be a distraction from engaging with problems and with each other to drive meaningful interactions and change.

    One solution uses gamification to nudge us towards behavioral change. Apps such as Fill It Forward created in partnership with Cupanion support water resources in several ways. With Fill It Forward and a bar code sticker on a reusable water bottle or mug, a user scans the barcode each time they reuse the container. With each reuse, a cup of clean water is donated to someone in need through water projects around the world. The app also tracks the avoided greenhouse gas emissions, landfill waste, ocean plastic waste, energy use and land use from calculations provided by WSP. Organizations from companies to universities can participate in competitive games through the app to see who can reuse the most and award prizes for sustainable choices. In this way, apps gamify sustainability.

    Featured prominently in the breakout sessions and on the innovation hub floor was Blockchain. One presenter explained that each block of data in a blockchain is linked to another in an immutable chain – allowing blockchain to increase the transparency of material attributes, such as production origin or environmental impacts, in an unchangeable way that increases the reliability and accuracy of data. This innovative technology is already being employed by Plastic Bank to enable individuals to exchange plastics collected from sensitive areas, such as developing countries, for blockchain secured digital tokens which essentially monetizes otherwise worthless plastic pollution. An above-market rate is given for plastic waste to incentivize collection. This combination helps to prevent plastic pollution from entering the oceans and assists people living in impoverished areas.

  2. Plant-Based: How does the ox get strong?

    Numerous speakers and engagement opportunities focused on the benefits of a plant-based diet. Two full sessions focused on how major businesses are offering more plant-based options and having a large impact on the environment. Ikea, the world’s largest furniture retailer, number one exporter of food from Sweden and the sixth largest food chain in the world, now offers two plant-based meat alternatives – vegetable “meat” balls and a veggie hot dog. The vegetable balls have a carbon footprint that is 30 times less than traditional meatballs, which supports the retailer’s vision statement “to create a better everyday life for the many people”.

    Max Burgers, a Swedish hamburger chain founded in 1968, sells the world’s first climate-positive burger. They measure the emissions associated with their food and offset 110% of that carbon by planting trees, making their net carbon impact positive. A significant way they reached this milestone is by offering a collection of vegan and vegetarian burgers, which have a much smaller carbon footprint than a beef burger, resulting in fewer emissions to offset. Their goal is to continue to grow their company in a way that does not increase their emissions.

    Finally, James “Lightning” Wilks, producer of The Game Changers (directed by James Cameron) was interviewed about busting the myth that meat is necessary for protein, strength and optimal health. The film features elite athletes and celebrities, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, discussing how they are able to perform at their best on a plant-based diet. Patrik Babumian, one of the athletes featured in the movie, noted his answer to the question: How could you get as strong as an ox without eating any meat? His response: Have you ever seen an ox eating meat? This indicated that plant-based diets are being embraced by major influencers, as a way to lessen the environmental impact of eating and to improve personal health.

  3. Plastics: Planet or plastic?

    During an interactive session, participants were encouraged to brainstorm methods to manage the challenges of plastics, particularly ocean plastic pollution. The issue was highlighted this year by Earth Day efforts to reduce consumer plastic consumption and by National Geographic in their June Issue Planet or Plastic. A proposed approach is for consumers to use less plastic, especially single-use plastics like beverage bottles. Another approach is for brands and countries to impose bans on plastics like straws. The trend among countries across the EU and brands like McDonalds of phasing out plastic straws could lead to more organizations following their lead. The Sustainable Brands host city, Vancouver, was the first city in the world to propose a plan to achieve zero waste by 2040. The highlight of the discussion was the ultimate move towards a mimicry of nature with the circular economy in which no material, even plastic, ends up in a waste stream because there is no waste stream – all materials are recovered and reused. After all, in nature, there are no landfills.

We left the conference feeling refreshed and inspired to bring these novel concepts back into our work as we continue to support organizations in identifying areas for implementing sustainable solutions.


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