Notes, from the Change Now Summit, Paris, 29-31 January, 2020
The Change Now Summit is the largest positive impact gathering in the world. Over the course of 3 days, we received visionary talks from a diverse range of speakers, including global business leaders already implementing impact strategies (both purpose or sustainability based), social leaders, academics, investors, and entrepreneurs who have developed sustainable solutions to some of today’s challenges. Around a packed timetable, several hundred solution providers, ranging from Engie to MUD Jeans, showcased the products they’ve created which contribute to a better world. These centered around Circular Economy, Education, Food, Green Mobility, Wellbeing, Low Carbon Energy, Sustainable Fashion, and Tech for Good. The magnificence of some of these creations made it feel like we were navigating the mind of a utopian sci-fi author. Meanwhile, the simplicity of some solutions begged the question how they hadn’t become mainstream already.
Provided below is an overview of the key take home messages from the event. For the more inquisitive amongst you, I propose taking a glance at the event’s website where you’ll be able to take a closer look at many of the solutions displayed at the show. Who knows, the answer to your existing challenges may lie amongst them…
As you can imagine, the entire event was doused in inspiration. The opening keynote (Bertrand Piccard) set the tone by emphasising that many of the solutions to today’s problems already exist. He implored that we don’t need to plough time and resources into ideating, creating, and inventing new solutions. Instead, we need to seek out, implement and scale-up the sustainable solutions which already exist, some of whom were exhibiting at the event.
Interestingly, Piccard’s perspective, shared by several other speakers throughout the event, was that the answer to curbing our damaging impact on the world is not to live a lesser life. He sees this as a potentially detrimental notion which curtails the natural development of humanity. Instead, he sees the solution in growth, deploying sustainable solutions to our challenges and, more importantly, losing old, destructive, habits. Front of mind for him was the prospect of reducing carbon emissions from airlines based on the fact he had single-handedly flown around the world based on solar energy little more than three years ago. Proof it can be done (in primitive form). The challenge lies
with industries to scale the solutions and make them fit for mainstream use.
Some large organisations (e.g. Adidas) acknowledged their contribution to current problems (e.g. environmental destruction) and explicitly took a responsibility to be part of the solution, making changes in their operations, processes and strategic priorities. This appeared to be authentic. Sustainability is now a fundamental part of their R&D process, meanwhile they recognised a need to ensure the welfare of the 1M people in their supply chain. Clearly the scale of making changes for such a large organisation is huge, so it is on partners, their customers and third party observers to simultaneously hold them to account and recognise that meaningful change in an ecosystem as large as Adidas is a marathon, not a sprint.
Beyond the corporations sharing a sense of duty to change course, there was a sense of co-ownership of the problem across the entire event. The fact that it is our shared societies, and planet, which are in such precarious condition means that we all share a responsibility to change the current course.
A Time to Collaborate
While this wasn’t an event aimed to dramatise the current state of affairs, there was no escaping the reality of our current plight. Given the predicament, and the shared sense of responsibility and desire to find solutions, there was a recognition that we need to extend beyond our traditional paradigms of competitive business in order to implement category and industry-wide sustainable solutions. Examples of collaboration between Unilever and P&G were shared, notably for the product re-use service (a step up from recycling) called Loop. Through category and industry level collaboration to incorporate better business practices, we mitigate the risk of competitors stealing a short-term advantage through non-compliance and facilitate meaningful behaviour change across the board. Courage, respect and integrity are needed for the process, with some academics and corporate representatives suggesting that objective, neutral, facilitators could have a role to play in the process. Elsewhere, there were cross-industry collaborations between insurance and pharma to help deliver better health solutions, and collaborations between academia, industry experts, entrepreneurs and big business across a variety of behaviour change programmes.
The requirement for collaboration is nowhere more salient than the the food industry where one third of food currently produced worldwide is wasted. Married up against the knowledge that 800 million people worldwide are malnourished through a lack of food, and 650 million people worldwide are classifiably obese (with a further 1.3bn people overweight) it clearly shows an imbalance in the system.
Exemplifying Piccard’s opening message, there were several examples of solutions which have the ability to significantly reduce these imbalances. Some lie in technology, some require the removal of regulatory obstacles, and some require a mindset change at a societal level. A genuine desire to tackle these injustices at the event suggested an aire of nobility returning to business which, at its essence, originated to serve society. Those businesses who take on this baton for change in a meaningful manner stand to make some serious gains, both in short term market performance, and in longer term brand equity. With food waste currently costing $18 billion in the US alone, in a food industry whose profits amount to half that at $9 billion, it begs the question how long we’ll have to wait for potential solutions, such as Wasteless (a dynamic pricing service which reduces the requirement for heavily slashed retail prices (and subsequent leftover waste) on the “use by” date), to become a mainstream reality.
The Economic Argument for Change
It was notable amongst several speakers representing large organisations that economic reasons were key propellants of change in several situations. Leading figures from Axa, Roche, and Danone highlighted the economic reasons behind significant changes in strategy. Furthermore there were examples of sustainable drives having significant consequential financial benefit; Adidas’s first trainer made out of 100% recycled plastic became their fastest selling shoe. By taking a true market-orientated approach – showing a desire to truly understand their customers and how they can be served better – they were able to apply commercial creativity and provide innovative solutions to meet those needs, increasing market share in the process. The result appears to be a win for customers, a win for the business’s brand equity, a win for society (business being done with societal consideration), a win for employees (knowing their work is making a difference), and a win for shareholders. Notably, the executives sharing such stories did so with a sense of pride and joy, two emotions which are too often distant from the stereotypically serious and financially obsessive world of business.
My overarching feeling from being at Change Now Summit is that the rules of business are changing. We’re seeing increased ESG investment, although the (self-reported) commitment amongst investors towards ESG investments does appear to be overstated. In the marketplace we are seeing sustainability increasingly integrated as a key consideration and more purposeful business being rewarded with increased market share and brand equity, and a return of the noble marketers and business leaders who meaningfully seek to meet the needs of the people they exist to serve.
Change Now served as a teaser trailer of what the future of business can look like. With a plethora of sustainable solutions on show at the event, business leaders providing proof of positive financial returns from incorporating purposeful strategies, investors excitedly exploring high-growth, sustainable, opportunities, and a recognition that we need to collaborate together to swing the tide, there is much to be hopeful about.
By: Mark Hauser