Authentic Sustainability

Authentic Sustainability

How should we think about sustainability today?
Authentic Sustainability by Peopledesign
By now, nearly everyone wants – or at least says they want – to be sustainable. But what does that really mean? How should we think about the issue as a whole? How might we act responsibly and authentically?

Not everyone is on the same page. For some, it’s a passion; for others, political. There are many views, but facts are facts. With fire becoming a season in California, our losing the Great Salt Lake to drought, Hurricane Katrina or Harvey, climate change with global weirding is hard to deny. Many are working on the problem. Others argue about what to do about it. Can we say one organization is more sustainable than another? Investors and customers pressure companies of all kinds, and a growing industry is focused on answering that question.

We are all creatures of habit. Most people, and the organizations they run, talk about change more than they do the work. That’s because change is hard. Change is a loss of comfort and familiarity, so we might consider sustainability change through the Stages of Grief.
Sustainability Stages of Grief

1. Denial – No climate change exists, and we don’t need to do anything about it.

2. Anger – We won’t do anything different and are angry that people keep asking.

3. Bargaining – Let's do as little as possible.

4. Depression – We’ll do something about sustainability, but it’s a bother.

5. Acceptance – I guess we’ll go with the flow.

Most leaders are working their way through this process. Moving toward acceptance means playing the PR game, at the very least. We all know that doesn’t go far enough. Even those making an honest effort can feel pressured to stretch the truth, looking for validation. Worse, greenwashing is a real problem, where organizations are more concerned with image than progress. Deliberate greenwashing happens and should be called out, but honest brokers are at risk of being wrongfully accused.

The internet evolved to allow easy content sharing in the last decade, forcing greater transparency. We leave digital fingerprints all over the web, so hiding online is hard. All your constituents can find information about your sustainability practices and will learn it from you or a third party. Good faith efforts may be hampered by complexity and disinformation.
The real problem of being authentic with sustainability is the enormous gap in understanding between those who don’t know enough and those who know too much.
The real problem of being authentic with sustainability is the enormous gap in understanding between those who don’t know enough and those who know too much. Closing the gap between experts and the rest of us is the goal. It’s a problem of empathy, communication, and understanding.

The Snobbery Curve

At Peopledesign, we’ve noticed a pattern of behavior among experts we describe as the “Snobbery Curve.”

The Snobbery Curve goes like this: Beginners are eager to learn and are humble because they understand a lot they don't know. Then, as people gain knowledge in a subject, so does their snobbishness about what they know. Knowledge and snobbery rise at the same rate until a certain point when the expert no longer has to prove themselves to the non-expert. Then the snobbery drops off. At some point, they don’t need to prove their expertise; rather, they can share their knowledge with people who know less. This dynamic plays out in many segments, from craft beer aficionados to bankers. (It’s like the Dunning-Kruger Effect, only that pride extends beyond confidence.)
The Snobbery Curve by Peopledesign
The Snobbery Curve isn’t absolute – some people like to be arrogant – but expertise is relative. You may know much more about cars than me, but I could find someone who knows more than you. True experts can relax. Unless they spend their time pushing the boundaries of their field with primary research, experts are well-suited to become helpful communicators and educators.

Can We Measure Sustainability?

Yes, but. There is so much than can be measured. So much to be done and so many ways to improve. We track metrics, but what to report? Is it accurate? Who understands the data? What gets validated? Are we just checking boxes? What we need are more sustainability experts who are on the other side of the Snobbery Curve. We need better communication, less dogma, and more sherpas.
We need better communication, less dogma, and more sherpas.
The built environment can have an enormous impact. Perhaps we should aim to be the most sustainable industry. Rather than viewing sustainability solely as a competitive advantage, we might celebrate overall victories. Yes, we should improve, measure, report, create standards and meet them. Then we should move the goalposts. We are all on a journey of progress over perfection; sustainability is not a zero-sum game.

Sustainability is an Opportunity

View sustainability as an opportunity. Cultural, political, commercial, and natural forces drive change in all segments. Change is scary but creates new pathways for innovation. Leaders can decide to be ahead of the curve.

There is also a broader definition of sustainability. On the most basic level, sustainability means survival, which is more than green – the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. Surely serving all three is the ultimate, but lofty goals obscure pragmatic details. Meanwhile, there is a parallel discussion about having a clear purpose, Simon Sinek’s Why, a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal), or, as Steve Jobs suggested, putting a “dent in the universe.”

Most leaders want to be authentic. They want a North Star for their brand, customers, partners, and talent. Sustainability may sound like a problem for your product and operations team, but it may be just what your brand and talent teams need to innovate.

When we get beyond our grief of change to acceptance, we might look closer at change itself. Let’s consider a Change Management process through the lens of sustainability.
Sustainability Change Management

1. Prepare – How might we soften the ground for sustainability?

2. Craft a vision – Can sustainability define our next chapter?

3. Implement – How can small steps begin to paint the bigger picture?

4. Embed – How does our sustainability vision actually change our work?

5. Review – How can we measure and celebrate sustainability progress?

Buckminster Fuller said, “On Spaceship Earth, there are no passengers, only crew.” It’s not easy, but we’re all in it together.

Authentic sustainability means being honest with ourselves, our competitors, and our industry. Sustainability is a requirement, but it’s also an opportunity. It isn’t a black-and-white issue; sustainability is a way of being and becoming. We play the game because we have to. We should celebrate our progress because it means celebrating human achievement and life itself.