Promoting Sustainability by Not Mentioning Sustainability

Post by Sharon Muli*

In some situations, the best way to spread sustainability is by not mentioning it.   More specifically, by not talking about sustainability using the language of sustainability.

I heard about the experiences of several business leaders in sustainability while attending the New Metrics of Sustainability in Business Conference  on September 27-28th, 2012.  This conference, hosted by Sustainable Brands and Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL), sparked engaging discussions among those in a wide range of roles who talk, or don’t talk, about sustainability. Below are some of the main points that emerged from the conference and participant discussions.

Consider your audience and the situation
As an individual interested in sustainability, a student studying sustainability, or an employee in a sustainability role, you would think that talking about it be beneficial. That may not always the best approach, however.  It is important to consider the audience, the situation, and the intended outcome of a conversation.

As much as you may be concerned about the environment, your company’s CFO, your company’s investors, or your consumers may have many other concerns. Today, the term sustainability is used frequently, and these individuals may have come to associate it with ideas such as “more expensive” or “time-consuming.”  Personally, you may understand that sustainability efforts have a wide range of benefits including reducing costs and risk, increasing employee happiness and satisfaction, and promoting a positive perception of a company.  It may be your challenge to convince these audiences to support your sustainability projects and understand these benefits.  How do you approach this?

1) CFOs. Imagine you are meeting with your company’s CFO to request funding for a sustainability project.  Instead of explaining the benefits to the environment that may be difficult for them to relate to, explain the facts, the return on investment, and business case for the project.  Jones Lang LaSalle CFO Lauralee Martin explained that this is key to enabling CFOs to see sustainability as central to core strategy.  You must talk to the CFO in language that they understand and be sure to have general business knowledge.

This lesson is applicable to many internal conversations within a company.  As Andrew Winston reflected on the discussions of the first day of the conference, he suggested that sustainability in companies is guilty until proven innocent.  Companies insist on a proven return on investment on sustainability.  This is valuable to keep in mind when talking to those within a company about incorporating more sustainable practices.

2) Buyers. An individual who makes purchasing decisions for a company can improve the sustainability of their own products while encouraging their suppliers to become more sustainable.  One challenge can be providing these buyers with sustainability information that can be easily applied to making purchasing decisions.  Walmart’s buyers now utilize a tool created by the Sustainability Consortium that ranks suppliers in comparison to each other in terms of sustainability.  This tool, described at the conference by Walmart’s Senior Sustainability Manager Brittni Furrow, customizes sustainability for buyers.  It translates the wealth of sustainability information on suppliers into an easy-to-understand ranked list.  In addition, it provides actionable recommendations for how the suppliers could improve, which the buyers can pass on.

3) Investors. An increasing number of investors today are interested in impact investing and sustainable investing.  This can be motivated by the desire to support “better” businesses, but it is also a smart investment in many situations.  Robert Boller from Jackson Family Wines explained how a traditional return on investment (ROI) is based on generating revenue and reducing costs, but business value is based on so many other factors including risk management, supply chain security, employee engagement, and so on.  It has been shown that the 100 best companies to work for are better investments, but how can you quantify this?  It is key that companies measure these other factors that impact business value, and then share these benefits on the company website and at investor meetings.

4) Others within and outside of a company. Above are only a few examples of the value of communicating sustainability in the appropriate way for the targeted audience.  There are many other groups that an individual involved in sustainability must work with, including government affairs, legal, and consumers.  Legal may be most interested how a program can help to mitigating risk, while consumers may be most interested in the impacts on their community in easy-to-understand language.

Talking About Sustainability Directly
Of course, among certain audiences, it is valuable to talk about sustainability directly.

Judy Wicks, founder of White Dog Café, has shared her practices and her local suppliers with other businesses in Philadelphia to help spread sustainability.  In a transformational moment, she realized that, if she really cared about the environment, she would share her practices with others so the local food economy would grow.  The White Dog Café website provides information about the sources of ingredients and the values behind their practices, which is valuable for customers who care about sustainability and other businesses who want to learn from them.

A main takeaway from the conference was that it is important for those involved in sustainability to understand that changing the world for the better is best done by working with others.  In order to succeed, it is vital to communicate effectively with others by translating sustainability messages into their language when necessary.

Image by Rupal Prasad, MES Candidate ’13


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