Stop selling sustainability!

Every week, I get at least one call from a Sustainability Director or practice leader from somewhere in North America. Each call is the same:

SD leader: “Hello, my firm markets how green we are, but we really aren’t what we say…I just can’t seem to get buy-in.”

Me: “Can you tell me a little more about what your firm has done?”

SD Leader: [various variations of: we have a green team, we have LEED projects, we started recycling…] In short, what I like to call “random acts of sustainability”

SD leader: “Our leadership is just not really bought-in to sustainability; they just give it lip service and let us do things as long as they don’t cost”


When I ask about project delivery methodology – nothing.

When I ask about tracking performance and learning from past projects – rare.

When I ask how they are advocating for sustainability – it’s usually this person, maybe with some folks on the (volunteer) green team, trying to convince others of the value of sustainability. They usually have great stories – how much money they saved their firm by pursuing energy efficiency measures in their offices, how great their projects performed that got LEED Certified…and still…nothing.

I usually make a number of strategic suggestions about their approach (create a sense of urgency, get an influential coalition to work together, engage leadership’s interests instead of pushing a position)….but, after my last call like this, I had a revelation:

Sustainability leaders need to stop selling sustainability!

It is unusual for executive leadership to be passionate about sustainability. And unless they have that passion all the stories in the world won’t get them past the ‘no risk’ phase (where they allow some activities, but no real investment).

Perhaps, all this time, we’ve been thinking about this issue inside-out. Instead of making sustainability the object and the thing we need to sell, we need to see sustainability as the outcome – the result that happens when you have pursued excellence and achieved it.

Performance? Only top-quality firms with the best capability and the most effective collaborations can achieve high performance on projects. The mediocre firms whine and say how hard it is – the uber performers just do it.

Health? When a firm is invested in the quality of its product, worst-in-class materials don’t make the grade.

Economics? When a firm is really on its game and truly understands integrated process and life cycle and systems-based design – the achievement of high performance does not come at the sacrifice of the budget. In fact, the best projects have more value and cost less than their code-compliant alternatives.

So, what we really want to do is push for excellence, but in a quantifiable way. What makes the firm best-in-class? How is your “product” superior to your competition’s? Does it provide the best value and best (life-long) performance for the dollars invested? Are we the most skilled and capable professionals? If we really pursue excellence, a natural outcome of that will be…sustainability!