Sustainability consultants have the perfect skill set for serving in political office

Sustainability consultants have the perfect skill set for serving in political office

A ballot vote with a sustainable future
ShutterstockGreenBiz Collage

It’s official. I’m running for the Virginia State Legislature. But before I explain what that means for me and for my company, I want to talk for a minute about why I believe that more sustainability leaders need to run for public office.

1. We find the win-win

Today’s political atmosphere is toxic — people have dug deep into their ideological corners and stopped listening to each other. We too often find ourselves in an us-versus-them situation, where in order to win, others must lose.

Sustainability leaders, however, spend most of their time in listening mode, looking for avenues to build an action plan that simultaneously:

  • Aligns with a company’s growth plan

  • Reduces environmental impact and improves operational efficiency

  • Satisfies the CFO’s budget and cap ex requirements

  • Demonstrates growth potential to investors

  • Bolsters employee recruitment and retention rates

  • Gives the CEO something to brag about

  • Convinces the local government to approve permitting applications

  • Enhances supply chain reliability and efficiency

  • Creates consumer loyalty

  • Calms community concerns about local environmental impact

  • Meets regulatory and legislative requirements

  • Minimizes risk to the company’s reputation, operations and supply chain

  • Builds resilience for the company to bounce back from unexpected market shocks

In short, we’ve very, very good at exploring complex, interconnected systems and finding solutions that move the ball forward — even among disparate teams with very different agendas and priorities.

Our ability to navigate complicated relationships and power dynamics gives us an opportunity to break through the quagmire, which is precisely what the political process desperately needs.

2. We understand how to balance the big picture with the details

At one level, sustainability leaders are concerned with the very biggest of big pictures — how do we ensure that the planet can sustain people into the indefinite future? And in the next breath, we’re deep in the minutiae of plastic-free alternatives for the kitchen break room.

Sustainability leaders are constantly reframing their perspective — making small incremental steps while keeping our eyes laser-focused on the end goal: better lives for people.

That ability to balance seeing the big picture with systematically tackling smaller policy steps needed to make progress toward that ideal endpoint is a vital skill set our elected officials need.

3. We are both idealists and pragmatists

In order to take on a career goal as audacious as expanding economic opportunity AND advancing social justice AND saving the planet, you have to be an idealist. Any one of those goals is usually enough to fill up a lifetime of work, but sustainability leaders sit at the nexus of all three areas — relentlessly seeking opportunities and strategies and tactics that will accomplish all three at once.

At the same time, we’re also ruthless pragmatists. Not every sustainability idea (and there are millions of them) will move forward, and we have been taught to screen our opportunities against three questions:

  1. Does it move us closer to sustainability (a world where we can live, in good health and with good quality of life, for generations to come)?

  2. Is it flexible (does it give us room to maneuver when a better idea comes along, or does it lock us into expensive, cumbersome bureaucracy)?

  3. Does it provide a good return on investment (is it worth the time, money, personnel, and other resources versus other available options)?

Sustainability leaders don’t let the "perfect" be the enemy of the good. If we’re moving in the right direction, if we have flexibility to tweak and adjust along the way, and if we can build a business case — that’s good enough for us to make some positive progress.

That kind of attitude and training would offer a welcome breath of fresh air in government circles.

Why I’m running for the Virginia State Legislature

In November, I’ll be on the ballot for the Virginia House of Delegates, District 22. Virginia has a citizen legislature, which means that it is a governing body made up primarily of citizens who have a full-time occupation besides being a legislator (so I can continue to run Strategic Sustainability Consulting). We have nurses and physicians and lawyers (a lot of lawyers) and IT specialists and journalists — and hopefully a sustainability consultant once I’m elected in November.

I’m running because I’m frustrated by our current representation, and I think I can do better. I’m bringing the skills I’ve honed over the last two decades in the sustainability field to fight for living wage jobs, affordable access to healthcare, expanded broadband access in our rural areas and a 21st-century approach to education.

During the campaign, I’m still working with my regular clients to help develop sustainability strategies, calculate carbon footprints, conduct life cycle assessments and write sustainability reports. None of SSC’s clients are within my legislative district, which helps avoid any perception of conflict of interest, and I’ve taken a public pledge to limit corporate campaign contributions. In a practical sense, not much will change on the sustainability consulting side of my life.

On the other hand, running for public office dramatically has opened the door to new places and ways that I talk about sustainability. I get the opportunity to speak to dozens of groups each month about how we can find win-win solutions that drive economic prosperity, environmental resilience and social justice.

People are excited to step out of the "us vs. them" mentality and start to envision ways that we can all succeed. And I’m privileged to be part of that conversation. I hope that more of my sustainability peers will join me on the ballot in the years to come.