Making Sustainability Happen …. Faster

by Susan Burns
Susan Burns
So much has changed in five years. I know many people complain we are not moving fast enough toward a sustainable society. But just take a look at what we see all around us today; Shell Oil takes a double page ad in The Economist calling for action on climate change, just when Bush and Cheney introduce their energy policy. Climate change is the feature article in Time Magazine. We see the emergence of the fuel cell and the first hybrid cars are buzzing around our streets. Bill Moyer’s PBS special “Earth on the Edge shows mainstream America we are in the middle of an ecological decline. Sustainable development is a common theme for major corporations from Dupont to Home Depot. We can argue about definitions and timelines, but one thing is clear, sustainability is becoming mainstream.

I have the good fortune, as a consultant, to peek into many different organizations, and to help them to further sustainability. What I see through this lens is what I want to share with you today.

We no longer need to define the ecological challenge or sustainability, or explain why it’s a good idea. It is clear to all of us that sustainability is about securing 6 billion peoples’ quality of life on this one planet. We also now have an abundance of frameworks to work with including The Natural Step, Natural Capitalism principles, and tools like environmental management systems. So, in a way, sustainability is inevitable, it’s just a matter of how and when, not whether it’s a good idea. The question today is, “How do we accelerate sustainability?” I believe that four things are necessary.

1. Vision
The first thing we need is a clear vision of what we are moving toward. Sustainability is a break from the past. It is different from environmentalism. Environmentalism describes what we are against. We are against waste, pollution, species extinction, etc. Sustainability is about what we are for.

It is critical that each of us have a vision of what sustainability looks like and that we communicate this vision to our customers and stakeholders.

The organization I believe does this best is Electrolux, the largest consumer appliance company in the world. They demonstrate a thorough grasp of the ecological crisis, and what parts of their operations may contribute to the problem. Then they describe a sustainable society and how their products can help create a sustainable world. They describe where they fit in.

2. Your Industry’s Role
What role does your industry play in achieving a sustainable society? It surprises me how resource recovery and recycling organizations don’t take credit for the pivotal role they play in the sustainability equation. I was made aware of this during an engagement we had with a major waste management company. They saw themselves as their opponents saw them and defended against those who thought they were the “evil garbage company”. But if you understand sustainability, the need for a cyclical society, where waste becomes food, waste recovery and recycling is a huge part of the picture. This industry can truly make the principle “waste equals food” a reality. I’ve never understood why more organizations don’t tell this story.

3. Your Personal Role
The third thing that is needed is to accept your personal role in accelerating sustainability. Given that there is a clear understanding of the need, why isn’t sustainability happening faster? It’s because it’s hard work. We’ll always need visionaries, like Paul Hawken and others, to give us new ideas and to light a path forward. But now we all need to roll up our own sleeves, see our work as an integral part of this larger revolution, and make things happen in the world. This is the daily work you all do: getting your proposals accepted, getting citizens to participate in programs, getting businesses off the ground.

People tend to minimize what they do in the world. But the real work of sustainability is with all of us. How can that be made more effective? How can you best enroll others in your vision, or to put it more crassly, how can you get them to do what you want them to do?

4. Enroll Others In Your Vision
This is the most important ingredient to accelerate sustainability. How do you communicate with people who come from different backgrounds and have different priorities?

In 1994, Rob Sheldon wrote an article called “Hitting the Green Wall” which described a common occurrence in corporations: environmental managers saw their environmental programs stalled again and again, even when the programs saved money! The organization refused to move forward. The cause: environmental managers saw the world though an environmental lens and didn’t speak to their colleagues in a language they understood.

There are two ways that organizations change. One is the Ray Anderson story: he had an epiphany, “a spear in the chest,” as he calls it. He is the rare CEO who suddenly realizes that he has done wrong and is going to dedicate his life to changing his organization. Or organizations change based on good business sense: it adds to competitive advantage, it saves money etc. I’ve found that both are almost always at play. People who are personally committed to sustainability, even Ray Anderson, need to put initiatives into sound business terms. Organizations are made up of many individuals. Sustainability requires many people to change, some are green some are not. The rules of business still apply even if the moral argument is strong.

Surprisingly, proving an initiative saves money isn’t enough.

Once, we created a business case for sustainability for a team of senior vice presidents at a major retail chain. Our analysis showed that if our client replaced all of its light bulbs with fluorescents, the business could save $6 million per year in energy costs. A no-brainer, right? Wrong.

Our client contact was not interested. It’s not that saving money and energy wasn’t important to him, but we had not framed the argument in terms of his major needs. This company was growing fast. What was most important to him was, one, gaining more customers, and two, retaining employees. Improving the company’s performance on these two scores would mean a lot more than $6 million per year. Without addressing these needs, the light bulbs were just one more worry on top of his already crammed list of priorities.

So we put together a business case for pursuing a sustainability initiative that achieved much more that cost and energy savings. It was a comprehensive approach to its suppliers, its customers, its employees all grounded in a larger vision, and oh, yeah, the light bulbs were an added benefit.

Seek To Understand Not To Be Understood
I see so many pollution prevention people and other environmental advocates continually running into a frustrating situation. They prove that something saves money and are confused when it’s not accepted. They say, “But I did put it in business terms!” We need to do a lot more listening and a bit less convincing. Like St
ephen Covey says, “It is more important to understand than to be understood.”

Marshall Rosenberg, the creator “Non Violent Communication,” says that when someone doesn’t agree with our ideas, we do one of two things.

Say you want your boss to implement an environmental management system at your company. You know this system would be wonderful for the company because all environmental activities would be systematically managed, the company would set goals and measure progress toward those goals, communicate progress to stakeholders, and continually improve each year. But your boss doesn’t get it and does not act on the idea. Some of us would feel rejected: “What a jerk I was, I guess my idea was stupid.” Others would criticize the other: “Those idiots, isn’t it obvious that this system makes sense?”

Rosenberg says there is a third way. It’s not that your idea was stupid. And it’s not that your boss is an idiot. In fact, everyone is doing the best they can to get their needs met. Your idea was not framed in a way that met your bosses needs. Often we assume we know what people’s needs are; but assuming is not good enough. Environmental people don’t know how much they don’t know about their audience. It is important to listen.

For this reason, getting a rejection is a good thing. It’s the only way you can find out what is important to the other person. We call it “Getting to No.” It is important to get to no as soon as possible and to not be afraid of the no. Getting rejected is not a rejection of you. It is a way to get to know the person you are working with.

To get to a no, fast, you need to make a specific request. Often, when we present an idea, we give a long introduction, describe the background, reasons why it’s a good idea, and at the end we say, here’s what we want.

But say you have a small amount of time with a very influential person. You can get to no right away by making your request right up front. Immediately the person’s needs will rise to the top and you can spend the rest of the time addressing these needs. Otherwise, you may get a polite, “I’ll get back to you.” You all know how often this is a no disguised as a yes!

Marshall Rosenberg tells a story that illustrates this. A former San Francisco gang member wanted to start an after-school program for at-risk youth. The gang member wanted Marshall to set up a meeting with the head of a foundation who could potentially fund this program. Marshall spent a lot of time setting up this meeting and briefing the former gang member on the foundation, etc. When the big day finally came for the meeting, the gang member walked into the office, sat down, looked the foundation representative in the eye, and said, “Where’s the money?”

Marshall was horrified at his friend’s manners and wondered if he’d lost credibility with his foundation friend. But after the gang leader asked, “Where’s the money,” the man from the foundation said, “What money?” Then the Gang leader said, “the $20,000 I need to start an after school program for at- risk youth.” Then the foundation representative asked another question, “Will this program really make a difference? Can you prove this?” And the gang leader replied, “Oh yes, we have found that the program reduces crime by 65%,” and so on. The foundation representative was able to get his needs and concerns on the table immediately and to decide in a short amount of time whether he was willing to fund the program, which he did.

So, next time you have a proposal to present to someone, don’t be afraid to make a specific request and then to ask, “What do you need to know from me in order to make a decision?” You are not demanding a commitment, you are simply allowing a person’s concerns and needs to come to the forefront.

Reorganizing for Sustainability
Not only does sustainability require that we have better communication skills, often sustainability requires environmental professionals to be completely retrained and for whole departments to be reorganized.

One of our clients, Baxter Health Care, is a good example. Two years ago, a small team of people within Baxter’s Environmental Health and Safety Department began to meet to talk about sustainability. Baxter’s Environmental Health and Safety Department had done a wonderful job of quantifying, in business terms, the department’s value. In fact, every year they calculate the costs of the environmental program (in terms of salaries and capital costs) and the benefits and savings, including the cost savings from pollution reduction, energy efficiency savings, and avoided liabilities. The benefit of the environmental program adds up to millions of dollars each year; because of this, the department enjoys a great deal of credibility within Baxter.

While the company had received great benefit from the EHS programs, the sustainability team knew much more was possible. The EHS department wasn’t engaging the core of the business, the marketing people, the customer relations people, the R&D people. Baxter’s products could be designed better; the manufacturing of the product could be improved. So they held a series of forums (which we facilitated for them) where they invited people from all over the company and asked them what was important to them. At the end, the EHS people knew a lot more about how to serve the needs of the other departments. Finally, they got up the courage to meet with the President, Harry Kraemer, and explained how sustainability tied into his objectives, and made a specific request: to adopt sustainability as a company-wide initiative. Now the sustainability initiative is no longer centered in the EHS department; an executive team that works closely with Mr. Kraemer handles it. Harry Kraemer is so involved in sustainability now, that he was the keynote speaker at this past CERES conference, talking about business’s role in meeting the sustainability challenge.

We also worked with a Bay Area biotech firm who’s EHS department realized that to really effect change they needed to view the rest of the company as their clients. This department was organized (like many regulatory agencies) around media (air, water, waste, asbestos, etc), instead of around the way the business is organized (R&D, manufacturing, marketing). So it needed a new organizational structure and new skills in order to serve the needs of the different departments better. Once the department was reorganized, it started to see changes in how products are manufactured at the company.

How do we accelerate sustainability? First, we need a clear vision of what sustainability is. How do we secure 6 billion people’s quality of life within the means of this one planet? Second, we need to know how our industry fits, and third, that our individual role is part of a larger movement. And fourth, and most importantly, we need to understand other people’s needs, make clear requests, and welcome their feedback especially if their answer is no. This is where we learn the most and can create the most change.


Susan Burns is a principle of the sustainability consulting firm Natural Strategies. The company helps organizations achieve long-term, “bottom-line” results through the application of sustainability principles in strategic and tactical decision-making.

This article is from her presentation at the California Resource Recovery Association Conference, Pasadena, California, July 9th 2001.

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