The key to fighting the climate crisis? Innovation and education


The Fast Company Grill hit SXSW this year. Couldn’t make it to Austin? Here are some Fast Bites: Your handy recap of panel discussions.

Though many companies tout their sustainability credentials, it can be hard to actually measure the impact of their innovations.

The Fast Company Grill at SXSW this past weekend brought together Ben Christensen, cofounder and CEO of Cambium Carbon; Camille Richard, head of sustainability at Back Market; Jennifer Stucko, founder, CEO, and creative director of Prota Fiori; and Eddie Ingle, CEO and Unifi to discuss how they’re creating more sustainable products, educating and engaging stakeholders, and measuring their impact.

“Consumers need a sustainable story”

Unifi creates clothing fiber out of post-consumer plastics and used textiles, most notably through their brand Repreve. Unifi’s innovative textiles have attracted the business of companies including Patagonia and Polartec. To Ingle, given the popularity of these brands that have sustainability embedded in their missions, it’s not about consumers–it’s about supporting brands convince companies to buy in because there has been so much demand from consumers for sustainable fabric.

“What [these companies are] doing is reading the tea leaves of the consumer. And the consumers need a sustainable story,” Ingle said. “What the brands want is companies like Unifi to be able to give them a product that is as good as virgin polyester or virgin nylon and performs as well—and oh, by the way, they can trust it and it’s transparent. We’ve got a very transparent supply chain. So our job is to help brands or retailers meet their sustainability targets and that’s why they come to us.”

Sometimes you have to start from scratch

In a similar vein, after seeing consumer demand for sustainable alternatives to leather sneakers, Stucko founded Prota Fiori to bring Italian craftsmanship to luxury vegan leather footwear.

“When I had come up with the concept of Prota Fiori, I had seen Veja and Allbirds and Toms and Stella and some really great mission-driven brands, but all of them were in the sneaker space and the athleisure space,” Stucko said. “I had also had a history working with Italian brands specifically in the supply chain and manufacturing and know the values that are tied to those brands, which wasn’t sustainability and ESG. So I thought I could start something from scratch because these brands will have to break their supply chain if they’re interested in sustainability.”

Building unexpected brands

Cambium Carbon works with cities, millers, and architects to save fallen trees in cities and turn them into usable timber. The key to the company’s success? Competing with incumbents on cost and quality and creating a brand around wood itself.

“Part of the higher bar for sustainability companies is you have to meet and solve core business challenges for your customers first,” Christensen said. “You have to deliver on price. You have to deliver on quality. And you have to create all this additional value. And what we really think about there is creating a brand,” said. “If you think about wood, there are no brands in wood. It’s a $215 billion industry and there are no brands. What are we doing? Why is that? And so there’s a huge opportunity to really create brand awareness and pass that on to our customers.”

Don’t guilt trip consumers—empower them

Richard says that Back Market has taken a similar approach. The company has worked to persuade customers that a refurbished device can work just as well as a new one—and that they’re also significantly cheaper.

“We are trying to educate. We are trying to convince. And what we want to say to the customer is you don’t have to sacrifice anything to actually be more sustainable,” Richard said. “You can have quality. You can have good value. You can have style and be sustainable at the same time.”

“I think what is very important to do as well is to switch the speech from a guilty speech [of] ‘what you are doing is bad—you are consuming in a bad way’ to say, ‘you have the power to actually change things,’” she continued. “It’s giving back the power to the customer to say it’s not a sacrifice. It’s better for the wallet and the planet. It’s a win-win.”

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