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How to sell a culture of sustainability

Struggling to convince your colleagues that sustainability is worth it? These two strategies can help them connect the dots.

As sustainability professionals, the work we are doing right now is critically important to the health of the world. We can’t do it alone, yet we often struggle to sell sustainability within our organizations. Initiatives pitched for the greater good fizzle, and to our colleagues, “sustainability” can sound like a lot of extra work with little reward. 

Let’s change that paradigm. We can sell sustainability effectively within our organizations based on two key strategies:

For upper management: Sustainability must connect with the organization’s overall success.  How is that success measured? By profitability, customer satisfaction or student outcomes?  Identify how your organization defines its success and find a way for sustainability to contribute.

For staff, contractors, vendors, students and the people you rely on every day: Sustainability must connect with their individual success. This piece is often overlooked, but it is critical to the viability of corporate sustainability.

1. Selling to upper management

“Change the conversation from ‘how to make the business case for sustainability’ to ‘how sustainability supports the business,’” recommended Gina Klem, Starbucks’ director of sustainable construction. 

For example, to a coffee company such as Starbucks, global warming of just 2 degrees would have dramatic adverse impacts on the amount of land suited for growing coffee. As a result, combating climate change is key to supporting the core business

For a higher education institution, such as American University, keeping tuition affordable and meeting students’ educational needs are central to the mission. Thus, its work to purchase renewable energy at a rate lower than conventional power, and to offer more than 1,000 courses related to sustainability, connects directly with its mission.

“Instead of struggling to find ways to integrate sustainability into your mission, consider your mission and ask how sustainability can help to realize it,” advised Chris O’Brien, American University’s director of sustainability.

In commercial real estate, sustainability is increasingly tied to financial outcomes. Green buildings lease faster and at higher rental rates, and a growing number of large multinational corporations, such as Shell Oil and Bank of America, require LEED space. In addition, a growing majority of institutional investors with holdings in in office properties require sustainability measures in some form or fashion. The result?  Sustainability is becoming a prerequisite to secure funding for major real estate purchases.

Whether it’s agricultural outcomes or access to institutional funding, start by figuring out how sustainability supports your organization’s core objectives.

2. Selling to teams

People need a reason to care, and sustainability programs only thrive when each member of an organization stands to gain from participating. Set your team up for success by encouraging leadership at all levels and by rewarding the individuals who take a leadership position. 

For example, if sustainable initiatives require your staff to acquire new technical skills, set up an apprenticeship program through which an initial group of staff can be mentors to others. Those mentees become the mentors for the next round.

Or, create a voluntary leadership program on sustainability that anyone who raises their hand can join.  Encourage these leaders to collaborate and create new strategies and resources for the organization.  Then, recognize their efforts by requesting that they present their findings to the rest of their colleagues. 

Through such leadership channels, high performers recognize the benefit that they gain from embracing sustainability, and they use these opportunities as a platform to advance, thus bringing their values and expertise up the ladder in the organization.

In any scenario, make sure to recognize staff members’ accomplishments. Whether it’s through awards, promotions, performance reviews or simply announcements, staff members need to know that their leadership on sustainability is appreciated. Recognition of these individual leaders is critical to ensuring that your programs will remain strong over time.

Remember that whether you’re selling to the CEO or selling to the cleaning crew, highlight the financial and individual benefits they stand to gain, and your culture of corporate sustainability will grow and thrive.

This story was created in conjunction with a session at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo.

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