Lessons from a Member of the Professional Sustainability Class
I took a sabbatical last year and I learned something terrifying. I learned that I’ve been living in a green bubble. I learned that the world outside that green bubble doesn’t think about sustainability the way I do. It doesn’t talk about sustainability the way I do. It doesn’t care about sustainability the way I do. It doesn’t even define sustainability the way I do.
Of course, I recognize that appreciating that I live in a green bubble is not an Earth-shattering revelation. The green bubble is something that we members of the Professional Sustainability Class talk about all of the time when we gather at conferences organized by GreenBiz, CERES, Sustainable Brands, and others.
We talk about how few people understand sustainability, how difficult it is to explain sustainability to some people, how we need to integrate more classic business perspectives into our language, how we need to “meet people where they’re at” when we discuss sustainability, how we need to use “more accessible” language, and how Chief Sustainability Officers spend time “translating” the language of sustainability into a form that is meaningful within their own organizations.
After 25-years in the sustainability world, I’m ashamed to admit that I found myself rolling my eyes whenever someone outside of the Professional Sustainability Class didn’t see the urgency, importance, or value of sustainability.
I found it easier to talk with other members of the Professional Sustainability Class than with executives from the 28 million small businesses in the United States, including the 18,400 businesses (not yet part of the Fortune 100) with more than 500 employees. I unintentionally avoided those who were not members of our eco-club. I began viewing the world as divided into us-versus-them. There were those of “us” who understood the importance and value of sustainability and then there was “them” – those who didn’t understand or who were actively opposing sustainability principles.
In 2016, I stepped outside of my green comfort zone. I deliberately left my green bubble and decided to see the “real” world. Rather than focusing on the Fortune 100 clients I’ve worked with throughout my career, I interviewed more than 100 executives from 60 small- to mid-sized companies located closer to home in Berks County, Pennsylvania, about an hour-and-a-half west of Philadelphia.
From those conversations, I learned a few key things:
- Sustainability is not always a global concept; sometimes it focuses only on the financial viability of a small, local company. (See “What the BLEEP is Sustainability?”)
- There are common “sustainability blind spots” shared by many individuals inside and outside of the Professional Sustainability Class.
- Telling positive stories about how companies are contributing to local sustainability efforts is more powerful than talking about what remains to be done.
Ultimately, the most important lesson that I learned from my experiences outside of the “green bubble” is that many of the most important sustainability challenges (however one defines sustainability) boil down to opportunities to further improve people, strategy, and process.
People: You need the right people, with the right attitudes, the right skills, and the right information, doing the right things.
Strategy: You need a clearly articulated plan that defines your desired outcomes and outlines what you are and are not willing to do to achieve those outcomes.
Process: You need efficient processes that allow you to deliver on the plan.
The Professional Sustainability Class has focused for the past decade on big government and big business as the path to a more sustainable future. Maybe it is time to remember that “small is beautiful” and to focus on smaller organizations too.
It is only the best run companies that have the ability to focus on long-term sustainability. Maybe it is time to help all companies run better. Maybe it is time to focus less on people, planet, and profit and to focus more on people, strategy, and process.