By Joe Sibilia
You know a conference has reached a tipping point when activists mount a campaign to disrupt your party.
That's what happened at Sustainable Brands earlier this month. As I drove over the bridge toward the Paradise Island Resort and Spa on a clear, sunny San Diego day, banners lightly flapped in the wind denouncing 3M. I was surprised.
Activists Target 3M, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo
The activists had their own radio station as well as a private boat bobbing in the waters outside the chic Barefoot Cafe and Lounge, with their message affixed to a sail. Bathing suit-clad volunteers basked in the sun at the park with more shiny banners brandishing their message of disdain for 3M, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They even managed to get their message in my room, with a series of flyers slipped beneath my doorway with messages from the Sierra Club and nonprofit ForestEthics.
They didn't disrupt the party. But they made sure they were seen and heard. Unfortunately, 3M, Coca-Cola and Pepsi ignored the activists’ presence—clearly a lost opportunity. A community is often measured by how they handle their dissidents. Ignoring dissent breeds contempt.
On day two of the conference in the early hours, a glass-enclosed room in the center of the Activation Hub held everyone's attention as CSRwire's Stephanie Conzelman, TriplePundit's Nick Aster and Hewlett Packard's Chris Librie collaborated on our first ever "live" Twitter chat from the event.
The topic: An in-depth examination of HP's new framework #LivingProgress. As attendees walked around with their coffees and breakfast treats, the tweeters' bobbing heads drew attention as they chatted with 193 virtual participants generating almost 800 tweets and 7.2 million impressions before wrapping up.
Surprises: Questioning Our Role in Society
But for me, the eye-opening moment at Sustainable Brands 2014 was in response to a story narrated captivatingly by a new friend. Imagine you are the owner of a large privately held business in the Midwest.
Imagine that your company is doing very well and you feel a need to “give back.” You decide you'll volunteer at the local homeless shelter. When you arrive at the shelter, you mentally prepare yourself to participate in the obvious activities: cooking and serving the homeless population in your community. It’s your first time, and you're looking forward to the day.
Now imagine that instead of the stereotypical homeless men and women, you see your own employees in line waiting for you to serve them food. How would you feel?
That's what happened in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin not too long ago where employees working for successful privately held businesses make less than a livable wage. "People say to me 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' – I can't even afford a pair of boots," said the homeless man to his boss.
It's the first time the business owner and the homeless employee had met. In fact, it had never occurred to the owner his own employees could be homeless and that their salary would be less than a livable wage. Shocked and appalled, he begins to question his role in society.
For context, Sheboygan County is home to some of the greatest success stories in privately held businesses – Bemis, Satori Cheese, Volrath, Sargento and Kohler, all can trace their roots to Sheboygan County.
In fact, these companies belong to a rare breed today – they manufacture in America. And just like Google didn't have designated parking for pregnant women until Cheryl Sandberg's pregnancy brought the issue to Cofounder Sergey Brin’s attention, "livable wages" never occurred to this business owner until he fed the homeless employee. Other private enterprises in the county did not know the extent the recession had on their employees, or the fact that almost 80 percent of the kids in their hometown were receiving reduced or free lunch.
Seeking Positive Change
All that changed when Carol Christensen brought it to their attention at the homeless shelter. Quitting her high paying job, Christensen started a nonprofit that collaborates with local farmers, organizations and volunteers to create and share fresh, local food with struggling families in their community. Through four targeted programs – Farm to Table Tours, Farm to School, Farm to Market Food Tastings and Corporate Tours – Nourish Farms provides both food and education to the Sheboygan community.
That's how change happens: By chance and through inspiration.
Now is the chance for all of us to seek change and get inspired by being open to the possibilities, listening to our hearts and making the adjustments needed to provide solutions to some of our most pressing needs. Keep your mind open and you'll find more solutions.
“Ignorance is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”
As for my session on the Millennial study from MSL Group; we'll hear more on that as the entire results of the study are released. It was a fascinating conversation with John Friedman from Sodexo, Kori Reed from Conagra and Avon's former VP for CSR Susan Arnot Heaney. For another great report about the event, check out this live post by The Guardian’s Sustainable Business team.