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Avoiding the Five Pitfalls of Sustainability Champions

Employee engagement around sustainability is vital for the success of any organization, especially those in the business of selling sustainable services and goods. In terms of effective methods of engagement, we have so far heard about innovative strategies in strategic storytelling and education-based learning programs. But what happens next? How do we activate sustainability in employees not only effectively, but on a personal level, and dare I say, sustainably?

To truly engage employees in sustainability, we want them to “walk the talk” - to become advocates, or “sustainability champions,” themselves. However, whether an entry-level employee or high-level CEO, there are personal and organizational pitfalls into which any sustainability champion can unknowingly fall, despite best intentions.

The work on paradoxes by Dr. Jason Jay, an expert in organizational studies at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Gabriel Grant, a doctoral student at Yale University studying leadership and sustainability, introduces five pitfalls that I think we can all relate to:

“I am more sustainable than you” | Make others wrong

We tend to use our acts of good to hold ourselves to be better than others. On the receiving end, I think we can all relate to the slight pang of guilt and shame when we drive into work in our conventional gasoline-run vehicles, while our colleagues drive in with their Priuses, or better yet, ride in on their bikes. This feeling is not productive even for those who are sustainability-aware. This raises even bigger issues of engaging those beyond the “converted” – how do we constructively preach beyond the choir?

“I am being the change” | Acting alone

On the other hand, we try to lead alone and expect others to follow. We think that if we all do our part, we can lead the change to a more sustainable world. Instead of the collective, multi-stakeholder actions that are required for complex sustainability challenges, we try to act as the “lone wolf.” This is not only ineffective but also leads to hopelessness. The overwhelming thought of the massive challenges we have ahead of us can easily cause us to throw our hands up in frustration, wondering, “Why aren’t others following?”

“My work addresses the biggest and noblest problems” | Silos

Sustainability challenges require multiple voices, stakeholders, and solutions that can be conflicting with each other, even within an organization. For example, the recent BMW hypocrisy claims over the new European emission standards showcases the internal conflict between BMW’s fuel-saving efforts and their branding as a premium automobile manufacturer. For sustainability professionals, it’s easy to believe that fuel savings should be the priority for BMW (we are trying to save the earth, after all!), and forget that other departments and employees may not have the same priorities and values.

“Others should do more” | Pushing our vision onto others

In today’s political and economic landscape, both consumers and businesses often face an uphill battle to make the more sustainable choice. Therefore, we proclaim what others should do – “governments should help renewable energy sources reach grid parity,” “businesses should take the initiative in mainstreaming green products.” Sometimes, in this push for our own vision of how the world should be, we forget to take ownership or responsibility for creating this vision.

“It’s not possible to be truly sustainable and profitable at the same time” | Cynicism

With the widespread use and trendiness of the term “sustainability,” we tend to be critical of the term when attached to profit-making businesses. This is especially true in consumer-facing product brands. How can we be truly sustainable when we are inevitably feeding the consumerist nature deeply ingrained in our society? Sometimes, it is hard to believe that there is a win-win for both businesses and green-minded consumers. This leads us to immediately look for ulterior motives and hidden costs, whether it is monetary or in environmental and social externalities.

At the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, I caught up with Niall Dunne, Chief Sustainability Officer at BT and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and asked him about how he addresses these pitfalls in his organization. His advice to me was simple: Be aspirational. As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Using people to rebrand sustainability creates a social currency, which holds the power to make the systemic changes required to meet sustainability challenges. This starts with using employees as changemakers. Through aspiration and the humble awareness of these pitfalls, activating sustainability in employees can create a truly transformative force that will resonate not only through their brands, but also through their business and personal communities. 

Sunmin Kim is a doctoral candidate at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, and a student reporter with Oikos International. She is pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD in Strategy (Ross School of Business) and Environmental… [Read more about Sunmin Kim]

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