Can sustainability sweet-talk its way into more hearts and minds?

When I was honored with election into the Sustainability Hall of Fame last year, two thoughts immediately occurred to me:

 "Oh no, my career is over!" and "I have to write a new book."

The reason for the second thought was the request from the sponsoring organization, the International Society for Sustainability Professionals, to "share some wisdom" at the induction ceremony.

Panic! "Wisdom" is not easy to produce on stage. So I started writing. Perhaps I also believed that by doing the second thought above, I could prevent the first.

The result was a new, very short little book, which boils down everything I have been working for, more than 25 years, into four little words: Sustainability is for everyone.

To call "Sustainability is for Everyone" a book is a little presumptuous, as it is only 49 pages long, including lots of white space and illustrations. But it sold more than 15,000 copies in the first month since launching Dec 1. It seems I hit a nerve.

The book begins by celebrating how far we have progressed in the global sustainability movement: light-years from where we started, and growing fast. (In a recent blog post, I pointed to the rapid growth of GreenBiz itself as a telling indicator.) Legions of chief sustainability officers and hundreds of university masters programs around the world testify to this happy fact: We are mainstream.  

And yet, we are not. I can't tell you how many times I heard a sustainability officer complain last year about how hard it still is to get the attention of a chief financial officer or CEO. An investment opportunity with double or even triple the usual ROI still looks like "not core" and gets prioritized down, compared to traditional business improvements. That legion of masters students? It's a tough job hunt.

What to do? I propose that it's time to break out decisively from the lovely, but limiting, "in-crowd" feeling that we have in the sustainability movement. Sustainability has too much to offer to be stuck in a box marked "sustainability."

So I offer a number of small, bite-sized chunks of advice, and a few new concepts, about how to break sustainability out of that box and bring its benefits to, well, everyone.

For example, a common error in communicating sustainability is to start  immediately talking about everything — global warming, poverty, water crises and so forth. I call this making the "big sustainability" mistake. If poorly timed, such talk shuts the listener down. It also strengthens that "in-crowd" feeling: "We are the ones who know."

"Small sustainability" is what most of us actually work with on a day-to-day basis: incremental improvements in energy systems, comparing product development options, implementing a specific worker wellbeing program. Anyone can relate to these things. Sometimes it takes discipline to stick to talking Small Sustainability, especially when you have a fire in the belly about Big Sustainability issues.

Plus, sustainability practice consists of so many wonderful elements — concepts, methods, tools, ways of thinking — that are valuable in and of themselves. I call this "take-out sustainability": bring just one of these concepts or tools, such as systems thinking, to your listener at a time. Bring condiments and all the necessary utensils, as you would a tasty take-out meal. Don't hit them with the whole banquet. Just get them used to the taste.

The book offers many snippets such as these, together with little tools, encouragements, even exercises, such as how to find and identify "invisible sustainability." I cannot rightly call it "wisdom," but I can vouch for the fact that it is born of experience. These are lessons that, for the most part, I had to learn the hard way.

I wrote "Sustainability is for Everyone" as a message to fellow professionals in my field, to help them avoid pitfalls that I fall into myself. But people also seem to be using it as a kind of primer, as well as pep talk, for reaching out to others in their organizations, including all the engineers and architects in a big firm, for example, or the alumni of a business school program. My favorite review so far called the book "deceptively entertaining."

Maybe that's what sustainability needs to become, in general: deceptively entertaining. Easy to digest. And impossible to resist.

We already have made it into the C-suites and boardrooms. The next step for sustainability is to sweet-talk its way into millions more hearts and minds, far outside the "sustainability movement."

And stay there.

Spring forest image by pavelgr via Shutterstock.