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Getting Acquainted with Karen Martinsen Fleming, EarthShift Global’s New Chief Marketing Officer

Karen Martinsen Fleming, EarthShift Global’s New Chief Marketing Officer

Karen Martinsen Fleming recently joined EarthShift Global as Chief Marketing Officer. Karen brings over three decades of sustainable business strategy, marketing, management, and teaching experience to our organization, and we’re very excited to have the benefit of her skills and experience. Her full bio is here.

You’ve got an amazing business background, with experience at several of the world’s leading sustainable brands. How did your evolution towards working with more socially responsible and sustainability-oriented organizations come about?

I began my career in the 1980s in consumer packaging goods marketing, most notably at Procter & Gamble, where I learned brand management and became quite adept at generating profitable revenue for every brand I managed. 

In 1994, my son had a severe asthmatic reaction to chemicals used by a company I’d hired to clean his bedroom carpet. It shook me to my core that a product used according to instructions had almost killed my son! That experience led me to research other chemical products I used in my home and I made many changes as a result. It also prodded me to reconsider my career with an eye towards using my education and experience to make the world a safer and healthier place. Because I enjoyed marketing and was good at it, I decided I would strive to use the power of marketing as a force for good.

Soon thereafter, I joined Stonyfield Farm. This was at the start of the dot-com boom, and many of my Harvard Business School classmates were joining tech-oriented startups; I remember wondering if joining a small yogurt company was the right decision.

Here we are decades later, and I know I made the right decision. I had a major role in Stonyfield’s successful national brand expansion and development of the YoBaby and children’s yogurt product lines. After Stonyfield was acquired, I joined Seventh Generation and led their new branding, product development, and national brand expansion efforts. It was at those companies I was first exposed to the concept of the triple bottom line (TBL) of people, planet, profit; also known as sustainable business. I’ve helped prove the effectiveness of sustainable business management in organizations of all types and sizes and trained hundreds of aspiring sustainable business leaders.

But trends in the macro environment (such as climate change, resource shortages, demand for social equity, greater transparency) and the proven success of sustainably managed companies have converged to make a compelling business case for sustainability. Executives can no longer deny there are financial and reputational risks to irresponsible behaviors and financial and reputational benefits to responsible behaviors.

How would you say that general executive-level perceptions of sustainability thinking have changed (if they have) during your time in the business world?

When I first joined Stonyfield Farm the perception was that TBL/sustainably managed companies financially underperformed conventionally managed companies. And that was often the reality, too — in the early days of Stonyfield Farm and Seventh Generation, for example, economies of scale for non-toxic product ingredients and environmental packaging had not yet developed. As a result, the cost of goods for our products were often higher than our conventional competitors and upward pricing limits meant we had to manage with lower gross margins.

Our investments in support of our mission would sometimes have negative short-term impacts on profitability. But over the longer run, these investments in people and planet would have an accretive impact on brand loyalty and profitability.

It is critical to note the willingness and ability to sacrifice short term profits for the long-term mission and profits were possible at these early pioneering companies because they were privately held. Public companies typically face more pressure to manage for quarterly profits and this is one reason it has taken more time for sustainable business management to gain traction in these companies.

But trends in the macro environment (such as climate change, resource shortages, demand for social equity, greater transparency) and the proven success of sustainably managed companies have converged to make a compelling business case for sustainability. Executives can no longer deny there are financial and reputational risks to irresponsible behaviors and financial and reputational benefits to responsible behaviors.

Encouragingly, research done by George Serafeim of Harvard Business School and others confirms that organizations that manage based on material ESG (environmental, social, governmental) factors outperform those that don’t. These factors have also become increasingly important to investors, which puts more pressure on publicly traded organizations to embrace sustainability.

Colin Mayer, Professor at the University of Oxford, captures the sea change imperative of sustainable business management perfectly with his statement, “The purpose of a company is not just to produce profits, it is to produce solutions to problems of people and planet and in the process to produce profits.”

You’ve known Lise and worked with EarthShift Global for a number of years. How did you come to be connected, and what are your hopes for this new phase of collaboration?

I met Lise when I keynoted the Maine Businesses for Sustainability conference. She invited me to join her board of business advisors and help with her marketing. Fast forward seven years and I am thrilled to be working with Lise on a day-to-day basis at EarthShift Global. I will be collaborating closely with her and the other team members to support our continued success and sustainable impact.

 

About the AuthorPete Dunn is EarthShift Globals marketing consultant and a freelance strategist and writer.

Pete Dunn, EarthShift Global’s marketing consultant is an entrepreneurial marketing and communications strategist and writer, serving clients in academia, technology and B-to-B marketing. His journalism background includes eight years as founder, editor and publisher of WaferNews, the leading news publication for the international semiconductor manufacturing community. He specializes in creative collaboration and translating complex subjects into clear messages that inform and inspire.