7 lessons sustainability professionals wish they’d known sooner on their journey

by Jul 18, 2018

In our work, we talk to a lot of sustainability professionals across many industries. We’ve learned that this is an amazing group of people. They’re brilliant, they’re passionate, and they’re working their tails off at an often thankless task: executing the nebulous concept of “sustainability” which varies wildly between companies and sectors.

We recently sent out a short survey to our newsletter readers to ask established sustainability pros what they wish they had known sooner. If you participated, thank you! From this group’s wealth of knowledge and experience (we’ve quoted some of their responses below), we’ve distilled some key lessons that can help other sustainability professionals along their own journeys.

Lesson #1: It’s a long journey. Be sure to pack patience and persistence when you start.

“It’s a process, not a destination. Sustainability is a state of being where you’re balancing your personal values, budget, and evolving research findings and products.”

“I wish I had known how important persistence can be. I don’t think it’s enough to communicate a message once; it needs to be told over and over.”

If you’re new to the sustainability journey, those who’ve traveled before you want you to know that it will take time. A lot of it, and more than you think. And it will require persistence. Some of those professionals have been at it for many years, and still struggle to make sustainability a part of their companies’ DNA. Even though they didn’t expect it would take so long, they’re not discouraged; they’re just wiser now. So if you’re beginning the process of making sustainability part of your company’s story, know in advance that it won’t happen overnight. Keep working, keep communicating, keep trying, and don’t give up.
Lesson #2: You must hone your messaging skills.

“Craft your message to lead, not admonish, people into following.”

“Stories are powerful. Learn to tell stories to connect.”

We’ve heard sustainability professionals refer to themselves as “Chief Translation Officers,” and it’s an apt title in many cases. The messages used in communicating sustainability, and the ways those messages are disseminated, are critical to success. Often, messages about the planet and our responsibility for it are presented in a negative light, but those who are successful find that a positive angle is much more effective. Employees and other stakeholders respond well to hearing about the company’s successes and learning how their efforts are making an impact for the better.

Lesson #3: Understand what motivates different stakeholders and make connections based on that.

“The more your subs understand why you really need that specific piece of documentation, the easier it will be for them to provide you with the right documentation the first time around. There is never too much training that can occur for subcontractors in regard to sustainability.”

“People are more likely to make substantial investments that benefit them for the long term if there is an immediate emotional benefit they can identify with.”

Sustainability doesn’t always feel relevant to everyone – it can seem like something happening “out there.” One sustainability size doesn’t fit all. Successful professionals have learned that they must meet each stakeholder group where they are, understand how sustainability can help them do their jobs better, and then connect with them through that lens. This makes it much easier to get them on board.

Lesson #4: Be prepared for the fact that you won’t always have the answers you need …

“A lot of information simply wasn’t available or known then. Climate change wasn’t an issue. Neither was energy conservation or renewable energy.”

The landscape of sustainability is constantly changing. Those who’ve been at this a while freely admit there was so much they didn’t know when they began, and they’ll also admit they’re still learning daily. It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. It’s okay if you have goals you aren’t currently meeting. And it’s definitely okay to change course as you learn more and more.

Lesson #5: … but you can’t let that stop you from acting with urgency.

“Having followed [sustainability leaders/visionaries] Buckminster Fuller, Amory Lovins and Edward Abbey, I wish that I had pushed more then to convince everyone that they were right about climate change, the greenhouse effect and how unsustainable our culture is. The World Watch Institute had it nailed in the 60’s and we just whistled past the graveyard.”

None of our professionals regretted having made some mistakes, but some of them regretted not acting sooner, regardless of whether their approach was perfect. There’s an urgency here, and you can’t wait for someone else to figure it out. As one of the professionals we surveyed so succinctly put it, “Do it sooner rather than later.”

Lesson #6: Be practical and understand the role of ROI.

“Show me the money … start with a focus on efficiency and reducing long-term operating expenses. Everything else is just potential upside.”

We know this, you know this, everyone knows this. Without the business case, you don’t have a case. The good news is, as sustainability’s definition evolves, more and more cost benefits are being recognized as results of sustainability. There are plenty of ROI links you can make that will resonate with your specific audiences.

Lesson #7: Learn as much as you can about your consumers and customers. 

“I wish I knew how challenging it would be to influence people’s thinking regarding the benefits of highly energy-efficient homes. I wish I knew more about marketing and how to influence people’s behavior.”

The better you understand your customers and consumers, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate with them about sustainability and how it can benefit them. At Shelton Group, we see the consumer mindset about sustainability evolving quite rapidly right now. It’s important that we all keep our finger on the pulse of that so we don’t mis-message or assume the barrier we need to overcome to get them motivated is X when really it’s Y.

Moving forward

Do you need to learn more about what your customers and stakeholders expect from you when it comes to sustainability? Do you have a grasp on that, but you’re having trouble connecting with the right messages? Have your sustainability communications so far felt like they’ve missed the mark and you need an honest, outside opinion from sustainability marketers? Definitely avail yourself of our free insight reports and, if you’d like a sounding board or even some concrete counsel, give us a shout.

In the meantime, consider yourself invited to the webinar we’re co-hosting with Environmental Defense Fund next Thursday. Mark your calendars! We’ll be presenting insights from interviews we recently conducted with sustainability professionals specifically concerning the resources and tools they’ve found especially helpful as they green up their corporate supply chains.

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About the Author

Virginia Vowell

Virginia designs, manages and analyzes primary and secondary research. Combining extensive research experience, sensitivity to client objectives and a passion for sustainability, she teases out the story of what the research means and provides actionable recommendations to clients. Before bringing her expertise to Shelton Group, she spent 12 years in a research agency environment. She also brings theater expertise – she recently starred in a regional theater production of Mame.

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