Chicago Green Jobs


5 Rules For Effective Communication About Sustainability
June 10, 2009, 7:16 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change
When innovation goes wild: The Rockland Walmart's Personal Sustainability Float made from all recycled materials for the 60th Annual Lobster Parade. And yes, that is an eight foot long lobster made of coke cans.

When innovation goes wild: The Rockland Walmart's Personal Sustainability Float made from all recycled materials for the 60th Annual Lobster Parade. And yes, that is an eight foot long lobster made of coke cans.

“Talking to my colleagues about going green is impossible – I wind up feeling like some hideous combination of the grinch and a nanny. And not the fun Mary Poppins kind, either.” Ah, the lament of the corporate green teamer! How to fix this?

The good news is that sustainability is inherently appealing. Most folks want to be powerful and creative and impactful in their daily lives, and sustainability offers a new lens for approaching problems and ideas. That’s pretty darn appealing to lots of people IF you can frame it up properly.

In my work with companies on developing a culture of sustainability, I follow five rules for effective communication that help me avoid becoming a nanny-grinch:

1. Meet people where they are. Defeat the perception that environmentalists are a bunch of tree-hugging hippies by connecting environmental sustainability to quality of life issues like personal health, community, and professional development and innovation.

2. Aim for finding common ground, not being right. It’s so very tempting to try to win arguments about, say, climate change. But it’s so much more effective to look for an environmental issue you can agree on, like health or air quality, and start the conversation from there.

3. Seek results, not purity of intent. The person who turns down her thermostat to save money on her electricity bill has just as much impact as the person who turns down his thermostat to cut his carbon footprint.

4. Invite, don’t command. All people respond better to enthusiastic invitations to make a difference than guilt-laden commands to stop ruining the planet. A successful engagement program is voluntary.

5. Small steps have a big impact. For every coffee drinker in America, there is a worker somewhere in the world whose livelihood depends on coffee.  Switching to Intelligentsia’s excellent and responsibly sourced coffee beans helps the worker depending on your caffeine addiction earn a living wage.

When an organization is able to engage the majority of their people in a conversation around sustainability and strategy, two types of action begin bubbling up:

Innovation: There is no such thing as a sustainability expert – sustainability is too big.  Instead, there are thousands of experts at all levels of an organization. Inviting all your people to use sustainability as a tool set to innovate improvements in their area of expertise will lead to dozens of ideas to save money, save the planet, and improve operations. Just make sure to have a channel for those ideas to bubble up.

Ownership: If your employees buy-in to your vision for having a positive impact by using double sided printing and turning lights off when you leave the room, then they’ll take responsibility for implementation instead of staying with their same old habits. And when your strategy for sustainability includes implementing the innovations your people developed, you see even more ownership across all levels.

I’ve seen employees adopt a local grizzly bear refuge, build a parade float out of coke cans, compete over reducing their office electricity bill, organize carpooling, and create green product displays that sell out right away. Once people make that personal connection to the idea of sustainability there is just no stopping the ideas.

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1 Comment so far
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Great post – I think the key is to apply these rules and create a sense of community among employees around sustainability. That’s the best way to scale a sustainability initiative.

Comment by Justin Yuen




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