How to Be a Sustainability Champion in Challenging Times

Are you working for a corporation that does not care about sustainability or energy efficiency? Do you feel like a lone warrior fighting a larger-than-life battle within your organization? Does your senior management view your passion as an expense with no return on investment? If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then this article is for you.

Before I came to Rocky Mountain Institute, I served as a sustainability strategy consultant to over 30 Fortune 500 corporations in India. Over the years, I have learned lessons that can successfully engage businesses to catapult solutions for sustainable development. Here are some helpful tips and tricks that can help mobilize your firm’s attention and resources to environmental stewardship efforts:

  1. Speak the language of the firm and your CEO: Every firm has a unique set of values, guiding principles, and strategic objectives it institutionalizes to set itself apart. These values help an organization stay relevant, profitable, and valuable. The senior and middle management also align themselves with these strategic objectives and values. So if you would like to catch the attention of your CEO or even your senior management, it is important to come up with project ideas that are relevant to your organization and resonate with its value system. The idea is to get important stakeholders on the same page by appealing to their shared value systems. For example, at RMI, we work on organizing charrettes that bring different stakeholders within the organization together to design solutions collectively. These charrettes are designed to reduce communication barriers and are extremely efficient in building the case for deep energy retrofit projects. If you wanted to catch the attention of your CEO, you could organize similar design workshops.

Pro Tip: If you want to employ the top-down approach to influence the senior management, understand what senior management officials are passionate about and start the conversation there. Don’t forget to talk about aspects of risk management and value creation for the organization. However, if you want to take the bottom-up approach to building consensus, invite ideas and project volunteers from across the organization and demonstrate the need for collective action. The right messaging is key to finding common ground.

  1. Make the numbers count as you share the impact story: Yes, you do need a business case for every sustainability project, but how do you build one? A business case is nothing but a useful summary of the project financials that also fleshes out the market opportunity, implementation plan, and expected outcome/impact of the project. The trick is to establish the business case and be innovative in communicating impact and storytelling. Quantify the impact in ways that matter to your organization, and measure the value creation in dollar equivalents. A few helpful examples of metrics to share your impact are: net present value (NPV) of dollars saved, brand equity built (expressed in dollars), employee productivity/satisfaction increased, and stakeholder engagement increased through the proposed initiatives. For example, at RMI, we make a conscious effort to document and share case studies and industry best practices while trying to build the business case for markets to invest in zero-energy buildings, districts, and even cities. You could do the same for your projects.

Pro Tip: Use case studies to tell your story because most people understand better with the help of a relatable example and even retain that information longer. Significant Objects, a literary and anthropological experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, demonstrated that narrative has a considerable positive effect on the subjective value of an object. This finding can be directly applied to your projects and increase their symbolic value to the organization.

  1. You can’t do this alone, so build a team: Ultimately, sustainability must be ingrained in the fabric of an organization and be operationalized by everyone, but until that is the case, it is important to have a team of passionate individuals from within the organization strategize and drive the agenda forward. If you are leading or thinking of leading efforts toward undertaking energy efficiency retrofits in your organization, you should build a team that is passionate about these issues and has the skills to help you implement projects.

Pro Tip: The more diverse and passionate the team, the better your chances of success. According to a Harvard Business Review article, “non-homogenous teams are simply smarter” because working with people who are different from you challenges your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpens its overall performance.

  1. Always convince them with a pilot first: While you might view the start-up capital required for a proposed sustainability project as an investment, the naysayers would like you to believe that now is not a good time to allocate the organization’s scarce resources to a project that hasn’t proven itself. When faced with such a situation, don’t give up and go back to your cubicle. Raise your hand and volunteer for a pilot project and then give it everything you have to make it a success. The truth is, once you successfully prove the value of a project to the organization, everyone involved will be a project champion and own the success. At RMI, we believe in the power of piloting new approaches to have a transformative effect on the market.

Pro Tip: Identify low-hanging fruit for a pilot project so that the project turnaround is quick and impact is guaranteed. Once you establish the business case, however, do not stop: push for challenging projects with more long-term savings. Projects that support the status quo are likely to stay on the sidelines. If you want real impact, continue to push the envelope.

  1. Make friends and be open to new ideas: I cannot stress enough how important it is to open channels of communication to people outside your comfort zone. Many good ideas die in the boardroom because the proverbial “green army” keeps trying to prove how righteous they are in proposing the project and to show how the corporate behemoth is being too self-serving by emphasizing the profit motive. The truth, however, is that this antiprofit vigilantism never got any project off the ground. It is important to reach out to and involve several stakeholders who may not share your vision. More importantly, reach out to your senior management (especially the finance guys) and grab coffee with them to understand their perspectives on the project before bringing it up in the boardroom. Remember, everyone needs a champion in the boardroom. Having said that, you must understand that you won’t be able to convince everyone to be on your side, so don’t overindulge by trying to get absolutely everyone on board. At RMI, we are always open to new ideas and are looking for ways to engage a diverse set of stakeholders in conversations that could solve the biggest market barriers.

Pro Tip: It is important to know your audience and understand what resonates with them. Being open to new ideas can help you enhance your perspective and being a good listener always helps. According to a Harvard Business Review article, good listeners are like trampolines who, rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.

So don’t let these challenging times get you down. Get out there and be a sustainability champion!