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Ariana Stolarz on Sustainability: “It’s Someone Else’s Problem – That’s What ‘Future’ Means”

New York, USA
Accenture Song’s managing director, product innovation speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper at Cannes Lions about the symbiotic relationship between sustainability and business growth, regenerative design, and a need to reinvent the wheel now

The relationship between sustainability and business growth should be “symbiotic” and neither at the detriment of each other, according to Ariana Stolarz, managing director, product innovation at Accenture Song. 

Ariana has been plugged into the world of strategy for over 20 years, most recently serving as global chief strategy officer at MRM before joining Accenture Song in November 2021 with a focus on growth and sustainability. She was on the inaugural Sustainable Development Goals jury at Cannes Lions before returning in its second year and helping shape the type of work and, more importantly to her, the true change that it should award. She’s also a member of the board of directors of the PVBLIC Foundation, an innovative non-profit media organisation that harnesses the power of media to drive social change.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” she tells me during a chat at Cannes Lions 2022. “On the one hand, you cannot have sustainability unless you innovate because you’re trying to find new solutions to old problems. Something that drives me crazy is when people say, ‘We can’t just reinvent the wheel.’ We have to reinvent the wheel. This is the time to reinvent the wheel. We have new data, we have new materials, we have new learning, we have new conditions that are provided by society and the planet. We need to challenge flawed ways of doing things.”

The innovation that drives sustainable practices is often seen by the ad industry as something shiny, new and exciting. But Ariana is critical of that and believes that innovation isn’t about newness anymore - it’s about what she sees as ‘betterment’. Innovation has inherently always been for the advancement of society and, in the case of brands, the improvement of consumers’ lives, but was previously more focused on functionality improvement in Ariana’s view. Take coffee - things like pod machines have opened up a whole new world of caffeinated goodness in people’s homes. “But right now betterment needs to come from a place for people and the planet,” Ariana says. “Right now the questions are, where does the coffee come from? What about the soil? How are they treating it? How are the farmers paid and treated? These are the types of lenses that we’re looking through at growth and innovation.”

An example of this in practice that Ariana highlights is the European Commission’s plan to require fashion brands to include a digital passport attached to clothing items. The passport will tell a potential buyer things like who produced the item, what those people were paid, where it was produced and the amount of energy required to produce it. Fashion brands will also be required to offer information on how to repair clothing. 

But people still purchase with their wallets and if a more sustainable option is more expensive than something else, consumers may be put off. And for some less privileged people, this would be a case of necessity over choice. “Sustainability is still somewhat a story of sacrifice and deprivation,” says Ariana. “‘You can do this, but you can’t do that’, ‘you can eat that but you have to pay more’, ‘fly less’, etc. We need education, we need transformation and we actually need innovation to change the narrative so people start feeling good about sustainability instead of just feeling like they have to stop doing things.

“There’s a big misconception that sustainability and business don’t go together,” she adds. “Businesses exist, consumption exists. We don’t want to stop that. We want to change the how – how we do business and how we consume.”

In terms of her role right now at Accenture Song, Ariana has a self-confessed “obsession” with regenerative design and turning scarcity into abundance. She mentions a project where a big beer company turned waste barley into a plant-based protein that can be used as nutrient for dairy products. “That’s new business,” she says. “They were wasting that product and now they’re turning it into a new source of revenue.” 

She is also really intrigued by and spending a lot of time in the fashion and retail space and thinks that oftentimes there is a superficial connection between sustainability and fashion. In terms of fashion and regeneration, Ariana highlights ‘Pinatex’, which won big at both Cannes Lions and D&AD, which she judged, this year. “Fashion is actually one of those areas where you see sustainability playing in almost every aspect, from how people shop to the materials to the production practices to where the clothes are coming from and how circular we make them. We’re working a lot on circularity and how we can create more of these models where people can buy and then resell and rent and repair. 

“Say you’re a manufacturer,” Ariana adds. “You could sell something for, say, $1,000. But you could have a direct-to-consumer-like platform where you can resell the item and you get another cut. Suddenly, you produce less and make more money.”

More generally, I raise the issue that consumers (myself included) can feel like their small actions are worthless and almost a waste of time while governments and some big brands continue with the bare minimum in terms of climate change and sustainability. “There is a problem of it being too detached,” Ariana says. “The images and semiotics of sustainability are wrong and flawed. You see a polar bear and you think ‘I've never seen one in my life… I have a dog’. And people can think it’s not their problem or they can’t cause change – businesses caused this problem and they should fix it. Behavioural change is what we really need – and it starts with education. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take time but we have no choice. If we don’t do this, we’re not going to have food. There will be no ingredients to eat. But it’s too detached.”

The world, be it brands and communications, governments or other entities, have an unhealthy obsession with the ‘future’ Ariana says. “But what about today? I’m happy to create a better future for my kids, of course, but I want to create conditions for today to be better.

“It’s someone else’s problem - that’s what ‘future’ means,” she adds. “And that's why I started to cut the word from every single positioning I did. The ‘future’ is a problem. There’s an obsession with something detached from today’s reality and therefore we don’t do anything about it. There is procrastination because of that. We have to infuse the right thinking into how businesses operate right now.

“But there is an appetite for that, which is good. In the past, businesses would direct you only to the ‘sustainability’ person but it’s not like that anymore. People in growth roles and in marketing actually take the call.”

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