Patagonia’s fall 2013 catalog begins with an essay, “The Elephant in the Room,” where Rick Ridgeway, a Patagonia Vice President for Environmental Affairs, describes being surrounded during a forum about corporate responsibility. Ridgeway, a Google executive, leaned over to Ridgeway and explained that, despite all the efforts made to improve environmental performance, “every global indicator indicating the health of the planet’s health has continued to trend in a negative direction.”

Ridgeway was inspired to not only name the elephant in the room but also to launch a Patagonia campaign for people to talk about it. Ridgeway wrote that the Responsible Economyinitiative would allow Patagonia to “go deep” and discuss it in essays on the website, in blogs, emails and our stores. Ridgeway invited leading thinkers and citizens to participate.

Ridgeway presented this example of how stories about sustainability issues–even those that pose difficult questions about business growth–can promote progress at the 2013 BSR Conference. Stories are a way to connect to the past and inspire our future. They also provide a platform for sharing human experiences and discussing difficult problems.

The Conference revealed that sustainability stories are most effective when they have one of these three attributes: They are personal and connect with the larger picture.

Make it personal when Dominique Browning, a magazine editor and author, decided to launch Mom’s Clean Air Force with EDF; she had one particular goal: It shouldn’t look like any other environmental website. Browning wanted to connect directly with her mom’s audience based on their universal love for their children, families, and communities. She stressed the importance of sharing sustainability stories through love at the BSR Conference. She stated, “A consumer and a citizen should feel that your mission is driven by love.” This is what attracts people to your stories and builds community.

This idea was also evident in Mary Robinson’s plenary speech, former President of Ireland, which spoke out about the need for a change in the narrative on climate change. This subject, which is so rife with data and science, concerns people, development and human rights. She asked the audience to take the topic personally and ask: “What can you do to make the shift to a low-carbon world?”

A member of the audience responded, “But whatwe can do?”

The role of business can be to inform consumers through storytelling about sustainable behavior. In another session, this idea was discussed. Patagonia and eBay have formed a partnership called “common threads, ” creating a new market in used Patagonia clothing. Patagonia encourages people to buy used clothing through its Wear blog. Here, readers can share their stories and tell about their adventures with their Patagonia gear. eBay sold 25% more Patagonia-branded products one year after the initiative launched.

Connect it to the Big Picture

Jim Berk, CEO of ParticipantMedia, shared a short video showing a young boy playing soccer. He was scrimmaging at local matches, bouncing the ball on his knees and finally turning it over to reveal an outlet. This allowed him to plug in his light at home. The bottom line: More soccer balls are in the world than people have access to electricity. Four Harvard women developed a ball that stores energy.

This film captures a universal feeling about sport’s power from a storytelling perspective. Although not everyone can relate to the energy access problem, many people can learn more about it through stories about soccer.

It’s crucial to think beyond our silos and consider how stories relate to the bigger picture. This includes universal themes such as love, humanity and freedom. Berk stated that positive change begins with a well-told story.

One participant in a pre-Conference training session on “CSR 301” noted that it was difficult for her company to tell its sustainability story because so many other companies have it. It’s beginning to sound like greenwashing.

BSR’s Managing Director Laura Gitman responded that it was important to highlight the brand’s bigger picture attribute and tell that story. Nike’s Flyknit and Free lines of shoes are promoted as performance shoes. This is true to Nike’s promise to develop innovative products for athletes. Nike’s sustainability goals also drove these lines. Nike has reduced waste from 80 to 90% in producing these shoes by using innovative and fewer materials.

This allows sustainability to be integrated into a company’s core identity, making it authentic and natural. It also connects to a larger story central to the business’s values.

Imagine a Positive Future

Sustainability storytellers must continue to look for the light at the end. The panel discussion on Sustainability Storytelling was moderated by Todd Reubold, Ensia. confounder. He asked the audience: “When was it the last time you saw a story about the environment?” The response was silence. Reubold was not referring to stories in the news. However, companies must create positive visions for the future that show citizens and consumers how it can be achieved.

Because we don’t know all the answers, storytelling for sustainability can be difficult. However, stories need to have a clear path. They should have a beginning, middle and end that show hope for the future. Mary Robinson spoke of this hope when she quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu in her address. “I’m no optimist,” she said. “I am a prisoner for hope.”

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