The Power of the Individual

Takeaways from the 2016 Net Impact Conference


Have you heard of Sybil?

In 1777, in the dark of night, a sixteen-year old Sybil Ludington mounted her horse, Star, and raced furiously across forty miles of rocky terrain to warn her community of an imminent threat.

It was the time of the Revolutionary War when British citizens were fighting tooth and nail for the place I now call home—the United States of America. Sybil, the age of a high schooler, travelled a distance significantly farther than that of Paul Revere to alert militia forces of the British army’s approach.

Passion and the power of the individual. Liz Maw, CEO of Net Impact, opened up November’s 2016 Net Impact Conference with Sybil’s story and this theme. Throughout the three-day conference, students in every corner of the Pennsylvania Convention Center were aspiring to transform their passions into world-changing actions.


Photo courtesy of Chris Kendig Photography

Many looked to the power and scalability of business to drive constructive, sustainable change—seeking and piloting new business models and drawing from and building upon what we already know works. This year’s Net Impact Conference, centering on the idea, Make History, demonstrated that this sometimes happens in game-changing ways, such as Walmart’s effort to transition into a zero waste company that operates off of 100 percent renewable resources. Other times, it is a series of incremental measures that moves mountains, slowly, but effectively, such as the use of cutting-edge virtual reality technologies to enhance designers’ understanding of refugee camp life to inspire new ways to keep children safe.

Getting to Zero Waste in 12,000 Stores

When I recycle at home, it’s good for the environment. It’s a helpful act that gives me peace of mind.

When Walmart—a company with close to 12,000 stores globally and 2.3 million employees—sets out to achieve zero waste in its operations, move 100 percent to renewable energy, and sell products that sustain its resources and the environment, this type of action has the power to tip the global scales in the environment’s favor and promote a paradigm shift among multinational companies.

Walmart President and CEO and keynote speaker, Doug McMillon, shared a eureka moment that struck the company’s leadership in the early 2000s. Born in a moment of crisis, this epiphany guided the retail giant onto a trajectory of hugely bold sustainability goals.

That moment was Hurricane Katrina. With stores across New Orleans and Louisiana, Walmart recognized first-hand the need that was going unmet by state and federal agencies in the immediate aftermath of the category five hurricane. Walmart leveraged its core capacities in department and grocery store product distribution and logistics to send 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals, water, fuel, and toilet paper, into the heart of difficult-to-reach, affected areas.


Walmart trucks deliver relief supplies after Hurricane Katrina [Credit: Walmart Annual Report, 2006]

Through this experience, the company’s leadership recognized Walmart’s power to act as a lifeline in times of disaster.

“Changing directions at the highest level of a corporation has a tremendous impact,” shared McMillon. “We asked how we could do more. It’s important for business to set big goals.” Following the storm, the company’s leadership set ambitious environmental goals. Since then, it has achieved zero waste throughout 75 percent of its global operations, with the goal of reaching 100 percent by 2025. It has removed 35 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from its supply chain, with the goal of getting to 50 percent of operations being fueled by renewable energies by 2025.

Reimagine Commerce is one of the few online retailers that has been able to effectively enter and compete against Amazon. Why?

Etsy, the largest certified socially responsible company to go public in America, injects social purpose into every level of its business. Etsy is a marketplace where people around the world connect, both online and offline, to make, sell, and buy unique goods. It offers sellers around the world, many of whom are artisans, an entryway into the global marketplace and the ability to earn an income through their craft.

Since going public a little over one year ago, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson has attended over 500 investor meetings on Wall Street, to explain how a social mission drives business and brand awareness. He has a grand vision for the power of business. “Big problems like increased economic opportunities and climate change won’t be solved by small groups and small companies,” asserted Dickerson. “At the end of the day, creating a strong, long-term business is the best way to create long-term returns.” For Etsy, the strategy is generating social dividends as well.

Your Power as an Individual

Similar to Walmart, General Mills has bold goals on its agenda. The company is committed to sustainably source 100 percent of its ten priority ingredients by 2020. This is over half of its annual raw material purchases. To date, General Mills has reached anywhere between 20 and 100 percent sustainable sourcing in its priority ingredients.


Source: General Mills, Sustainable Sourcing

The actual operational changes necessary to turn an audacious goal into a reality are immense. I was curious to know how individuals within a company the size of General Mills drive this level of sustainable change.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Net Impact speaker, Kim Nelson, Vice President of External Relations at General Mills and President of the company’s foundation. Kim echoed Liz Maw’s opening words on the power of the individual. “Don’t underestimate the power of helping the entity you are already a part of move in a new direction. Think about investing your energy and talent in companies – when we change, that can change an industry.”

Sybil Ludington, just one individual, changed the fate of her fellow neighbors through an act of passion, commitment, and perseverance. How can you help to drive and be a part of the change that you seek to see in the world?

Feature image courtesy of Chris Kendig Photography


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