3BL Forum Focuses on the Long View

by John Howell, Editorial Director & VP of Content, 3BL Media
Oct 29, 2018 9:35 AM ET
Blog

What a difference a year makes.
 
Last October, 3BL Media presented its first “Brands Taking Stands” conference. Earlier in the year, we had acquired the company which had previously owned and operated the event as Commit!Forum. The renaming and reorientation of the 10-year-old conference spoke to our sense of a need for a deeper dive into the “commit” concept as it applied to corporate social responsibility in business.
 
The Brands Taking Stands theme was inspired by a more sharply pointed phenomenon that I had been reporting on for two years previously: The growing number of companies announcing principled positions, both individually and collectively, on major social and political issues. This unprecedented outpouring of pushback against public policy by the private sector began in 2015 with legislation labeled as “bathroom” and “religious freedom” bills in North Carolina, Indiana, and Arkansas. Thousands of businesses and organizations spoke out against these misguided policies.
 
Since the inauguration of the current administration, the Brands Taking Stands movement (for a movement it clearly is—not just a trend) has grown exponentially. Coalitions of companies now regularly sign on to collective statements about the Big Issues, acknowledging the daunting challenges and proposing innovative solutions.
 
Our instinct to point the conference in this direction was on target. On the first day of last year’s “business” gathering, the major topics included immigration policy, gun control, and the opioid crisis—and that was before the lunch break. The event was definitely not a business as usual gathering. 
 
This year’s “Brands Taking Stands: The Long View” doubled down on the theme, exploring the latest developments in those companies taking positions on the key social and political issues of the day—and in their actions to make progressive change. One year down the road, more companies are finding new ways to deal the ongoing issues, and we’re in the middle of the action. Now, the public statements made by companies and organizations on several policy issues are mirrored by the variety of internal strategies and practices being put into place to address them. Diversity and inclusion, sustainable supply chains, governance, reputational management—the basic building blocks of corporations are being re-shaped by adding principles to the operations of HR, IR, and communications departments.

The 2018 Brands Taking Stands conference offered a rich buffet of essential topics. Among them:

  • long-term value
  • materiality assessments
  • purpose-driven leadership
  • consumer research
  • gender equality
  • crisis management
  • innovative thinking
  • social impact
  • engagement and activism
  • new tech (blockchain, AI, IoT)
  • social change
  • human rights

(The full agenda is here.)

In every case, the discussion moved on quickly from acknowledgment of the challenge to solutions: What is being done to make things better, faster? Sharing a collective focus on these concerns with CEOs and other C-suite executives, CSR and sustainability professionals, academics, journalists, and students will generate—for the second straight year—an atmosphere of intense debate that I have seen only occasionally at other conferences.

The challenges facing business today are large and they are existential: They are the same as those that affect our political, social, and environmental situations—in short, our cultural identity as the human species. Look at how the issue of brands taking stands played out on the international geo-political stage of the current Saudi Arabian crisis. A Who’s Who of the multi-national corporate and financial world is sorting out positions on the continuum of profit and principle to determine what it means to do business in an unprincipled context. While many leading businesses, investment entities, and government officials pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative, all still face the conundrum of how to measure quantifiable transactions against no less valuable but more qualitative values. It’s an unprecedented test for the Brands Taking Stands movement, and a big one. Stay tuned for the scores.

Whether you were in the room as the Brands Taking Stands conference took place or are catching up on the action after the event, C-suite executives and CSR professionals must tune in to this urgent conversation.