3 Key Strategies to Advancing Sustainability

February 25, 2013

People and EarthWhether you’re a green marketer or company sustainability officer, what are the best ways to advance sustainability and get people engaged?

The question was a recurring theme last week for sustainability experts and green business leaders at the  GreenBiz Forum in New York. Here are three key takeaways from a day spent at the conference:

1. Change the Way You Engage

“To advance sustainability, we have to change the way we engage,” says Erika Karp, managing director, head of Global Sector Research for UBS Investment Bank. “You have to get in touch with the green brain.”

OK, But how? Part of that strategy may involve the power of storytelling, as we cited in a previous post about a talk given by journalist Simran Sethi. Whether it’s telling the story of your company’s sustainability or a sustainable product—effective storytelling creates empathy.

Empathy, of course, works both ways. Ask questions of people, Karp advises, and be empathic about their agendas. It could be bottom-line profits, enhancing public relations, or something entirely unexpected.

2. Foster Empathy by Learning

Matthew Arnold, managing director and head of environmental affairs with JPMorgan Chase, told an effective story about the bank’s work in the oil and gas sector, and how the investment bank designed programs for best fracking practices by first going to many of the companies and asking about their businesses and how they go about it. The bank let it be known that it wanted to learn all the best practices and over time collected those and now shares it with others.

3. Find Out What it Means for Them

Beth Colleton, senior vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility for NBCUniversal, says, “The bottom line is what it means for them.” Colleton, who also spoke at the GreenBiz Forum on how a company’s sustainability program can become a strategic partner, has had success in getting the sustainable value proposition embedded in her company’s capital expense process.

“Sustainability is a people business. We have to go across the board and convince everyone and get it in their DNA,” she says.

You need to talk to a bunch of people, says Dave Stangis, vice president of CSR & Sustainability for Campbell Soup Company and formerly of Intel. “The levers that we use to make these arguments have changed. Now it’s taking this stuff from the people and turning it into a process.”

Platitudes or Useful Advice?

Much of this may seem like platitudes and the very basics of selling, marketing and engaging others, but often those in the sustainability sector, green thinkers and environmentalists need to be reminded that it’s not all about the threats of climate change and corporate responsibility to the people you’re trying to sway.

As Tod Arbogast, vice president of Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility for Avon Products and formerly of Dell, said at the GreenBiz Forum, “Facts don’t matter in what we do. We all know that facts about climate change.” But does all the data really matter in guiding what we end up doing, he asks.

Climate change is certainly becoming more of a factor in convincing people about the need for sustainability, though that’s not because of scientific data. It’s because people are  now experiencing it in the form of severe storms and drought, as Sethi says. The overwhelming scientific data does not mean much for most people. Hence the need for engagement through empathy, learning and storytelling.

What Arbogast says about facts may also be a platitude. But it’s a valuable one to consider.

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