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Sustainability professionals must shine brighter than their peers: Here's how to do it

5 ways for rising above stereotypes and cognitive biases about environmental, social and governance strategists.

Here is a bit of career advice for those in environmental/sustainability professions: Be better. Yes, that’s right. This is an unfortunate reality, but you need to be better than your colleagues in the same room representing different professions.

I am not a minority, and I have pretty much never experienced any form of discrimination or bias in my life. But over the years, as a sustainability professional, in my work environment, I have repeatedly found myself the butt of jokes, the subject of eye-rolling, the target of misinformation campaigns, and the aim of many belittling, demeaning or just plain annoying antics.

Now believe me, compared to the plight of women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community and other minorities, this little professional bias is nothing. It is not my intent to even complain about it here. However, I am identifying it because it is a serious hurdle to the ultimate goal of our work, namely presenting real, tangible, thoughtful and analytical solutions to a variety of policy and organizational challenges. In other words, this behavior on the part of others can prevent your message from being received. It can cloud your message and discredit your conclusions.

Is it your fault? No, of course not. Do you need to acknowledge it is there and be realistic about its impacts to your work and career? Yes, without a doubt. So, in order to achieve your goals, you need to counter. The only way I see it right now is to work harder and smarter, to be better. But first, let’s look at why we face this uphill battle.

Longtime stereotypes

The first issue is that even though the environmental movement was arguably ignited by a book of hard academic science in Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," the free-loving Woodstock '60s hippie quickly became the poster child of the movement. The dirty, smelly, stoned, tie-dye wearing tree hugger is probably the first image many people, especially baby boomers, conjure up when anything about the environment surfaces. But as author Lee Jussim notes, "as biased and destructive as these images may be, many stereotypes — fixed characterizations of specific groups — turn out to hold kernels of truth."

At least some portion of the audience already more than likely has discredited what you have to say before you have opened your mouth or shown even a title slide.
I have to say that in my two decades working with environmental advocacy groups and professionals, a certain, very visible portion of the overall movement still kind of falls into that stereotype. I have often wondered if this is a disservice to real progress for the movement.

So it is important to know that when you walk into a corporate board room as the (often token) "green" person, more than a few people at the table have just put a tie-dye on you, a joint in your mouth and strapped your arms around a tree. That is not a great entry point for a serious conversation about sustainable solutions.

Cognitive biases

The second major issue is what is known as cognitive bias. George Dvorsky notes, "A cognitive bias … is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking — a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution and miscalculations (such as statistical errors or a false sense of probability)."

One of the most common of these is the "Confirmation Bias." We as people like to hear information that confirms what we believe or want to believe. It creates a sort of negative feedback loop. As Dvorsky notes, "We tend to be put off by individuals, groups and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views."

Well, for better or worse, environmental issues have been and continue to be polarizing. There has been a lot of rhetoric and campaigning, and again, unfortunately, this has been driven deeper into our politics.

It would be very difficult for someone these days to consider themselves neutral on the subject. Most of us more than likely lean one way or the other. Thus if you lean more conservative, you may have been told for years that environmental policies strip out profits and cost jobs. When you hear information that supports that, you may weigh it more heavily as proof of that theory and may be less likely to search for validation of the information. Conversely, if you are liberal, and you see data suggesting job losses resulting from environmental regulation, you may be more likely to search for holes to discredit the information, or attribute the job losses to another circumstance.

The reality is that in many organizations, unless their mission or original founding was specifically environmental, there is a good chance that at least some people you come across in your work have a confirmation bias that environmental policies are undesirable, or even worse, detrimental to the organization.

Understanding your starting point

So when the stereotype meets the confirmation bias, you end up with someone who is already predisposed to think you are a silly treehugger peddling ideas they can poke holes in without even trying. They are already in the mindset that they just have to tolerate this exercise because some person or some entity is making this happen, but obviously it will be a waste of time and the evidence will be clear to that effect.

Now compare that with the accountant who walks in to deliver the third-quarter earnings report. Is there any stereotype about this person, other than maybe being a nerdy bean counter, which you want anyway in an accountant? Or an attorney. Or the insurance risk assessor. Is there any potentially strong and deeply ingrained and possibly even political bias against what those professionals are discussing? I cannot think of any other profession that faces this level of stereotype or bias.

It is important to find other parties who are backing us up in the form of references.
There you have it. If you are preparing to present at the meeting, you have to be better than the accountant, the attorney or the risk assessor. The recipients will receive all of their information generally at face value. Conversely, you are starting in negative territory. At least some portion of the audience already more than likely has discredited what you have to say before you have opened your mouth or shown even a title slide. Therein lies the imperative. Now you need to be better. On all levels. You have an uphill battle just to even make a point, let alone affect a policy decision.

Being better

So now that you know you that for a sustainability professional, the "A" in A-game stands for All the Time, how do you do it? What are you supposed to do? Here are five recommendations.

Tip 1: Be more professional

In order to combat the aforementioned stereotypes, you need to present yourself as more professional.

As noted above, many may have perceptions of you that are predisposed, so you need to work right from the outset to upend their preconceived notions. This can be done simply by your appearance and how you carry yourself. Some of your audience is likely expecting certain things from the tree hugger in appearance, and therefore the same thing that might go unnoticed on the accountant may be noticed on you. That goes for dress, demeanor, speaking style, etc. You are playing with a handicap. You need to make up ground. You can do that by paying careful attention to your appearance, your manners, your demeanor, your articulation, your speaking style — everything about how you come across.

Tip 2: Be more prepared/organized

Again, there may be a certain expectation that the hippie tree hugger also will be scatterbrained and rambling (insert pot/stoner joke here). To combat that, we as professionals need to be extra prepared. There is no room for error or do-overs because the cognitive bias will kick in for at least some. Any missteps will only validate opinions that the information and the person (you) are not credible.

Tip 3: Overwhelm with examples

As those of us who work in the environmental field know, there is a lot of evidence for value in our work, whether it is a green building or a corporate earnings report. Sustainability is not just about the environment; it is about other principles such as conserving resources and minimizing expenses. But to again overcome some naysayers in the room, we need to show additional evidence.

Find counter-arguments and present those, too. Discuss them openly as this gives you credibility as an independent thinker and qualified resource.
 I liken it to the overwhelming force concept of the Powell Doctrine, championed by Gen. Colin Powell in the First Gulf War, wherein the volume of information and evidence is extensive — even overwhelming. In addition, more than just having a lot of examples and case studies, develop these fully and completely.

Tip 4: Overwhelm with references

Because we are entering into many discussions or presentations with some bias that we, and therefore the information we provide, may not be credible, it is important to find other parties who are backing us up in the form of references. Without this, it may seem as if this is just your opinion and not based on any true data or other foundation. The more references, the better. The more varied, the better. Lastly, the references should be as credible as possible, coming from independent, reliable and prestigious people and sources.

There are two footnotes here, though. First, be very wary of your own cognitive biases in your research and work. It is very easy to limit oneself to the research and references that validate one’s own conclusions. Who wants to be wrong or feel challenged, right?

Second, find those counter-arguments and present those, too. Discuss them openly as this gives you credibility as an independent thinker and qualified resource.

Tip 5: Clearly identify risk/reward

With a lot of what we do in our professional lives, and especially in business, decisions come down to risk. In the environmental world, there are two kinds of risk: Action-based and Inaction-Based.

  • Action Risks are those risks that happen when a person or company takes a particular action. For example, a company is considering switching its packaging to a less waste-intensive package. The potential risk is that customers may not recognize the product or be turned off in some way.
  • Inaction Risks are environmental risks that occur when a person or company doesn’t take a particular action. Businesses right now are dealing with the question of climate change and their own carbon emissions. Are they at risk by not taking any action to address their emissions? Just as there is risk in taking an action, there is also risk in not taking action.

It is paramount that we identify risks to our audience. Of course, this is part of what we do. But it does something else. It changes the discussion from one of perhaps "my values vs. your values" to one of common ground within an organization. It reminds everyone that ultimately we are all working towards the same goal of the betterment of the organization, and minimizing risk is a big part of that.

When identifying risk, if possible, put it in dollars. Money talks. It is the equalizer in the discussion, the neutral playing field. It is objective.

Similar to risk, we must also identify reward. So much of what we do has benefits for our organizations. We need to clearly identify these rewards.
Similar to risk, we also must identify reward. So much of what we do has benefits for our organizations. We need to clearly identify these rewards. Sometimes they are abstract, like public opinion, but sometimes they are concrete and can be identified in dollars.

By diving deep into risk and rewards, we show our peers that sustainability professionals are not just about saving the environment. We are about improving our organizations top to bottom. We in our profession know, perhaps more than anyone, that a sustainability program that does not have value beyond just the environmental benefits will not be around for long.


Thus when working in our field in order to make our case, we need to present ourselves better, work harder, do better, and frankly, be better. We need to dig deeper to make sure our assumptions are accurate.

There is no room for error because we will only get one shot at making our case. To that end, we must all pledge to work together to do better, and understand that when we get up to speak or hand in that report, we are representing a wider group of professionals. The more I can be perceived today as contributing true value, the less stereotype and cognitive bias others in our industry will face, both today and tomorrow.

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