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Selling Sustainability

<p>Sustainability champions who underestimate the human factor can never facilitate genuine change in their organizations. If you learn how to sell people on your green idea, you'll make your company more competitive and create a cleaner world at the same time.</p>

For the past two years, media attention around companies "going green" has mounted to a crescendo. Are we finally reaching the long-awaited critical mass?

Not even close.

The scientific case for climate change may be sealed but the majority of business leaders are still suspicious of sustainability. The source of their inertia may surprise you. Their primary concern isn't "Why should I?" as much as "How do I?" In my experience, the real issue lies in the question they are often afraid to ask: "How do I sell sustainability?"

Let's begin with an example of how not to sell it. I was invited by a local mayor to deliver a speech on the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement to his town council. More than 700 mayors in 50 states have now signed the agreement, making it one of the most significant grassroots movements to reduce emissions in the U.S. I was sure the town would sign it. The mayor even drives a hybrid Lexus.

When I arrived at the town council meeting, I immediately sensed that people saw me as a pot-stirring outsider. One council member even went on record to oppose my speech before I began. The mayor became strangely silent. Not only did the town refuse to sign the agreement, several people followed me into the parking lot trying to convince me that climate change isn't real.

Where did we go wrong?

A postmortem discussion with the mayor revealed that he was taken by surprise by people's strong reactions against the idea. Although the mayor might have gotten on board, his residents would not. He didn't lead them towards it as much as sit back and hope.

It turns out that many had pressed the town council ahead of time to refuse the agreement based on ignorance. How, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, can people still be so slow to change?

Human beings are not, and never have been, swayed by science alone. Sustainability champions who underestimate the human factor can never facilitate genuine change in their organizations. To successfully sell sustainability to all but the most sophisticated audience, we must first dispense with the certitude of science and master the art of sales.

Whether you are trying to rally employees around a conservation initiative or devise a green marketing campaign to win customers, here are six tips for selling your green strategy:

1. Understand how Change Works

Recent success stories from the largest or most progressive companies aside, your typical CEO still does not have environmental responsibility, beyond compliance, on his radar. Many business leaders struggle with how to present a green strategy to stakeholders such as upper-level management and employees. Seeing yourself as a change agent will empower you to navigate these channels.

Human beings are subjective creatures; to sell them on sustainability, you must meet them where they are. Any organization can have a mixture of leaders, followers, laggards, or curmudgeons. As an agent of change, you must learn to present your green strategy in an appropriate context for different personalities. Generally speaking, secretaries like to be supportive and nurturing, while the CEO is all about the bottom line. Sustainability has enough benefits to go around for each personality type.

2. Inspire Your Audience

Many people are afraid of change. Even when the leader is open to it, the followers might resist. Laying a foundation of education will help grow green roots in your corporate culture.

Use communications methods such as email and newsletters to share messages about your sustainability goals. If you intertwine facts with personal experience, people will be more inspired to engage in your mission.

Find creative and fun ways to spread awareness in order to build a foundation for more strategic sustainability efforts. Consider inviting an expert to deliver a motivational seminar or suggest a discussion group, such as those sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute.

3. Emphasize Practice, Not Theory

We live in a culture of consumerism and instant gratification. The business world thrives, or at least survives, by this reality. It seems counterintuitive to most executives to be diverted by something as soft as sustainability seems to be. The common misconception is that sustainability is an esoteric pursuit of the intellectual elite.

In reality, sustainability is actually mere common sense masquerading as nonsense to a lot of people. In fact, it makes so much sense that it would be impossible to argue with if it were better understood. The rub is that the people most committed to teaching sustainability have tended to be incapable of communicating with the perpetrators, so they end up preaching to the choir. We now know that real change requires us to engage the business sector.

Discussing deep ecology will not win the support of your average executive. Even ideas like the "triple bottom line" can still seem too abstract. Instead of talking theory, try emphasizing the practice. Begin with the answering the real questions: What are you really proposing? What are the tangible benefits? How exactly will the plan work? Has anyone else done this before with success? If so, how did it work for them?

4. Build Consensus

Without building consensus, your great green idea may remain on the ground. People support that which they help to create. Invite key staff members from each department to join a "green team." They will feel honored to help take the company in a new direction.

5. Demonstrate Bottom-Line Value

Put together a cost benefit analysis of savings that can be achieved through conservation efforts. If green marketing is your goal, research the LOHAS market or the booming Clean Tech industry. It's difficult to argue with something as thrilling as opportunity.

6. Be Bold

Sitting on the fence merely guarantees that your competition will beat you to the punch in the growing green economy. You don't need a PhD in environmental science to get into the game. Today's green business gurus aren’t coming out of the ivory tower. Some of the boldest approaches are coming from entrepreneurs with no previous green credentials.

You may not have heard of Joe Harberg yet, but you will. Harberg, the founding partner of a $60 million investment fund, is also the principal partner of Current Energy, the "world’s first energy efficiency store." Harberg knows how to sell: the branding is hip and the store is all about saving people money. The formula is proving profitable, leading to a growth of 300 percent in the past year.

Harberg is spreading sustainability through selling, not just talking. "We're basically selling a savings," said Harberg. "We've got about 20 items here that, in the right combination, can save you up to 50 percent on your electricity bill."

Harberg has become a local celebrity in Dallas, even hosting his own radio spot, the Current Energy Report, every Saturday afternoon.

For a lesson in boldness, consider another entrepreneur: British billionaire Richard Branson, who has offered a prize of $25 million to anyone who can find a way to rid the earth of CO2. Branson has also invested more than $3 million in clean technology.

"The Earth cannot wait 60 years," he said. "I want a future for my children and my children's children. The clock is ticking."

O.K., so not everyone has the staggering resources and reckless abandon of Sir Richard. But rest assured, if you learn how to sell people on your green idea, you’ll make your company more competitive and create a cleaner world at the same time.

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, a consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes save money and bolster their brand through the leading-edge principle of sustainability.

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