Change. We hear the word frequently -- political change, changes in the economy, climate change. Lately, I am reminded of a professor who used to tell us, "You can't expect someone to act or react the way you want them to... the only person you have change over is yourself." So, in these challenging times, how do we get the world to change when it comes to implementing sustainability practices? We don't. We change. We lead by example. We invest in our human capital and adhere to our company values -- and we remain authentic. We inspire, educate, communicate the three tenets of sustainability -- environmental, economic, and social -- and their interconnectivity throughout the company, and then we engage with our stakeholders.

The human dimension may get labeled as the softer side of sustainability -- often the toughest tenet to measure, and sometimes the most difficult to implement. But when pursued with integrity, it is the driving force behind the change that is required in today's world. People make data meaningful, find the opportunities in the challenges, and take action with innovation and creativity. So what are some ways to create a culture of change? We'll take a brief look at how shifting to a culture of sustainability requires relevance, meaning and commitment.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world" -- make the intangible relevant

Gandhi's words are inspiring and remind us of the importance of the human spirit and drive to take action. The momentum, motivation and sheer determination of employees to embrace an idea and make it come to life may not always be measured by an organization, but the return on investment from boosts in morale and productivity, as well as company reputation, can be illuminating.

Wal-Mart, for example, created a paradigm shift by engaging its U.S. employee base with the Personal Sustainability Project (PSP) concept. The associate-driven program is voluntary and focuses on making sustainability accessible and relevant to employees and their ,communities. and as noted in their September, 2007 online fact sheet, "Sustainability Lives in Wal-Mart Culture" [PDF]. The largest company in the world launched the program in 2007 and by September of that same year, 480,000 Wal-Mart associates had adopted a PSP. The U.S. program has been so successful that Wal-Mart plans to expand it internationally. They defined sustainability to make it accessible to their employees, helping them connect personal and corporate missions to make a difference for their own health and the health of the planet.

How do we make sustainability relevant to employees? Know them. Communicate widely and often the significance of sustainability to your business, and how they are a crucial part of the plan. Take the pulse of your company first, and ask these three questions:
  1. What does sustainability mean to you?
  2. How does it apply to you and your daily work/life decisions?
  3. What would you like to see happen in the company to support sustainability?
Use the responses to learn about your employees and where their understanding of sustainability rests. The baseline will help to derive next steps in developing any changes in culture, which will most likely include making sustainability not only relevant, but meaningful to them, as well.

Rise to the challenge

"Nothing changes behavior like price," extolled a businessman on the commuter train heading home last week. How true, especially in times of uncertainty. Sustainability is often perceived as a cost to companies -- an additional layer to deal with when it comes to implementation -- a price to be paid. But it is perhaps our greatest liability as business leaders if we are not proactive in addressing sustainability -- particularly before the resources run out or new regulations force us to change how we do business. When we begin a shift in culture, employees may ask, "What's in it for me?" This is the opportunity amidst the challenge: creating meaning and communicating it well.

Just as the authors of the book Making Meaning describe the power of creating meaningful experiences for customers as "the key to creating deep and lasting loyalty," I pose that creating the same sense of meaning and purpose for employees inspires changes in behavior and increases support of sustainability principles and practices.