I recently attended the Net Impact 2014 Conference in Minneapolis, MN and thought I would share some of the ideas and debates from the event that inspired me. The conference was full of positive, proactive energy and provided some interesting lessons for the world’s next group of sustainability leaders.

Firstly, if you have not listened to Dan Pallotta’s TED talk about the way we think about charity, I highly recommend it. He spoke at the conference on this same topic and received a very positive response from the conference attendees.

Pallotta provides some very thought provoking statistics and arguments about how our perceptions of charity often defy logic. (One excerpt: “You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”) He also discusses how these beliefs about charity are impeding our ability to make effective change in the sector.

If you relate to his struggle, work in the non-profit sector, or support his general mission, he has set up a non-profit to support and protect non-profits called the Charity Defense Council.

Second, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever (click here to see all the well known brands they own), spoke to conference attendees about Transformative Leadership, which really struck a chord with me. Specifically, when he was asked about the most difficult part of his work on sustainability, he responded:

Where the challenge comes in is actually not so much in our own company… but, there are many things that need transformative changes outside of just the sphere of your own company where you are required to make coalitions with governments, with industry – where competitive issues might get in the way, or where governments have a different time-frame or different electoral priorities – and how do you change these things? How do you create movements […] for impact?…

How do you get out of deforestation? We are buying sustainable palm oil ourselves and we know how to do that, but that doesn’t solve my issue, you see. If five years from now, or ten years from now, if I [am] done with my current job and I say “Unilever has done all these great things, but the world hasn’t changed.” I still couldn’t look my children in the eye. So, how to you create these movements for change beyond your company and create these tipping points is probably where the toughest thing is.

Polman also talks a great deal about changing our current financial mechanisms to support more “patient capital” and get away from short-term thinking when it comes to returns on investment. This is crucial given that “short-termism” really hurts companies’ ability to work on more of these long-term, systemic issues. I highly recommend watching his keynote speech.

Lastly, I attended a workshop looking at how to integrate local businesses into global supply chains, hosted by PYXERA Global. In the session, we discussed the challenges and opportunities of incorporating and developing “Local Content” – defined as “the development of local skills, technology transfer, and use of local manpower and local manufacturing”. The workshop discussed a case study of a local content project for Anadarko’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Mozambique (also called AMA1). PYXERA states:

The early construction phase of a project such as AMA1 presents challenges when seeking to enhance opportunities for local companies to participate in the supply chain. Often, international oil companies will aim to address local content development after construction, preventing local companies from joining the supply chain. This situation is undesirable and unsustainable as oil companies pay a premium for goods and services, local businesses are unable to profit from the presence of major petroleum projects, and the local economy is denied the growth stimuli from oil and gas.

The session was extremely informative and offered insights into the tough questions that practitioners working in this area deal with during different global projects: How do you incorporate local businesses when the technical capacity or infrastructure of these firms may not be to the level required? How do you deal with local versus national content – when a national company (not local to the area) may be prepared to offer a service, yet the locals do not consider this promoting local development? What is the role of the government, local communities, and local businesses in promoting the development of local content?

More information on local content development and additional case studies on the topic can be found on PYXERA Global’s website.

There are many other stories that I could share. I highly recommend that anyone interested in social impact, environmental impact, sustainability, corporate responsibility, international development, etc. attend the annual Net Impact conference. It is an excellent learning and networking experience that provides energy and motivation to all those working in this space.

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