CR Leaders: Ms. KoAnn Skrzyniarz, Chief Executive Officer, Sustainable Brands

Ms. Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands®, is a seasoned B2B media executive whose involvement with the intersection of environmental and human issues in business dates back to the mid-1980s, when she launched international conferences on reducing waste paper and eliminating ozone-layer destroying chemicals.

Since 2003, Ms. Skrzyniarz has devoted her full attention to the field of social and environmental sustainability, launching Sustainable Life Media in 2004. In 2005, she produced the First International Conference on Cradle to Cradle Design in Practice with Bill McDonough, Michael Braungart and Peter Senge among others. In 2006, she launched what has now become and in 2007, the widely respected Sustainable Brands Conference which has now become a global community building platform serving over 1 million business leaders world-wide and convening gatherings on 4 continents.

Ms. Skrzyniarz has attended graduate level programs in business management and sustainability at Cornell and Wharton, and currently sits on the Advisory Board at the Center for Sustainability at Pennsylvania State University. She regularly speaks to corporate, academic and professional audiences about sustainability as the basis of a new renaissance of business innovation and value.

AccountAbility (AA): In what sustainability-related areas can Sustainable Brands really make a difference?

KoAnn Skrzyniarz (KS): Over the past several years we have become the largest global online and face-to-face platform for disseminating thought leadership, supporting peer to peer learning and collaboration, and showcasing emerging tools and solutions at the intersection sustainability and innovation. We are helping accelerate the pace of change for the better by spreading the best ideas and examples of environmental and social innovation more quickly from place to place. We are allowing people to apply resources to new learning, rather than to relearning or recreating work that has already been done, as well as providing hope around the world that we really can get where we need to go despite the growing instability in the world.

 AA: What initiatives at Sustainable Brands are you most proud of?  

KS: I am very proud of the #newmetrics conversation we first convened four years ago at Wharton and which has continued to pick up speed each year at an annual conference dedicated to the topic, as well as through the year via an online channel on This year we’ll be hosting the conference in partnership with MIT. Yale, Harvard and many others will join dozens of NGOs, think tanks, and corporate innovators who are all working to identify new forms of value that businesses are beginning to, or might generate in the future other than just profit, and to define how these forms of value can be measured and ultimately tracked to corporate financial performance. This is a critical conversation for bridging the way to the next economy and we are helping illuminate the way by bringing together the best thinkers on the topic to share and learn with and from each other.

I am also proud of having framed a conversation that has generated powerful interest from around the world – people from over 80 countries have participated in one or more of our live events which will be held in 7 cities around the world this year – and we have an even larger representation than that online. This is a tribute both to the way we have framed the conversation for our community and the network that we have aggregated, but also to the growing awareness of the need to solve the problems we are trying to address in a positive, innovation-focused way.

AA: Are you doing anything differently in the CR space than your competitors?

KS: Sustainable Brands is the one, real, in-action systems-thinking community dealing with this issue of designing and implementing a sustainable future by leveraging brands as a lever for change. There are lots of places where the systemic issues are being discussed and debated, and lots of places where individual challenges are being worked on, but we are uniquely bringing those people – across many market sectors, many functions inside organizations, and many organizational types – together in innovation oriented conversations. Our community has defined us as “Home for Courageous Optimists” and that’s exactly what we set out to build, so it is a delight to see that we are recognized for that.

AA: How much does your organization look to develop partnerships to accomplish sustainability-related goals?

KS: We are enormously partner-driven on so many levels. We could never have gotten where we are today without countless partnerships, and we will not grow without continuing to build even more of these. We have many barter relationships where we exchange value for value rather than currency. We partner on knowledge exchange, communications and marketing, research/learning, environmental impact and in many other areas.

AA: What are some of the strengths and limitations of partnerships?

KS: I probably think more about opportunities and challenges rather than strengths and limitations. I have always been intrigued by the project-based orientation of the film industry. When you watch credits from any major motion picture these days, or even independents, they generally reflect many different organizations that came together to create the finished effort. It’s remarkable to see people come together to work on a specific project, then move apart, then come back together in different groups and teams as new projects align.

For me this is a really interesting model that could work very well for sustainability-related problem solving. As far as challenges, the biggest ones I see are pretty basic, but run deep: for a successful partnership to actually achieve results, partners need to find and define a shared vision, then identify the unique values each partner can bring to the table, then commit to operating with shared values that enable trust. From there, the issue becomes creating structures for effective communication and productive action. It’s not easy, but the good news is, when motivated by a sense of shared purpose, people will put up with quite a bit more messiness and fits and starts before putting up their hands and giving up. I am inspired every day by the degree to which our community continues to cohere despite constant iteration of our operating structures and imperfections in our day-to-day collaboration.

AA: How do companies generally deal with missteps and controversies?

KS: I like to tell people that we as humans generally want the same things from our relationships, whether they are with individuals or with companies – authenticity and integrity. In other words, tell me who you are, and mean it. If you make a mistake, be open about it, apologize and make amends, then learn from it and don’t keep making the same mistake. We’d rather have honesty than perfection, but at the same time, a pattern of repeated broken promises or mistakes is what leads us to break off relationship with people in our lives. This is healthy and should be what we do with companies too.

AA: What are the benefits and burdens of social media for companies? How can companies leverage the interactivity of social media to engage with their stakeholders?

KS: On one level, the increasing ubiquity of access to information and the speed at which mistakes can be communicated and spread creates greater pressure on companies to strengthen and deepen the integrity of their operations. Social media can accelerate controversies, but also it is a great tool for educating stakeholders. It’s difficult, but it’s amazing to me how few of us have learned how to create new habits that actually invite people into conversations by asking people what they need or what they think about what we’re doing.

It may be a bit scary to do so in public, but inviting people into conversations is a great, inexpensive and powerful way to keep learning about the problems out there that we may be able to help solve. This truly can create real value for others. And after all, that’s what healthy economies are about – finding ways to create and exchange value for each other. We have fallen dangerously into accepting unhealthy forms of exchange that are more about extracting value than creating and exchanging it, and that’s where I think we’ve gone astray.

Click here for more information about the New Metrics Conference in Boston this September 24-26.