Two approaches to build support for sustainability
And why you should only use one of them if you want your initiative to succeed and make a real difference.
Listen to the podcast
Click play to listen to this guide in your browser. Or click the feed icon (to right of episode title) to listen and follow in your podcast app.
In this guide:
- Approach 1: Tackling sustainability is good for business
- Problems with the business case for sustainability
- Approach 2: Connect with people’s concern about the climate and nature crisis
- Why don’t people talk about their concern for nature at work
- Tapping into this concern to build support for your initiative
- Action: (Re)connecting with what ‘sustainability’ really means
- Links to articles and other resources
Have you ever talked with colleagues about why it’s a good idea for your organisation to do more about sustainability only to be met with disinterest or even hostility?
In this series of guides we’re sharing our experience to help you build support for your sustainability initiative, so that you can create a group of enthusiastic and committed collaborators, and have key allies standing by to help out when you need it.
We’ve already explained why building support is crucial to the success of your sustainability initiative. In this guide I’ll take you through two approaches to building this kind of support for your initiative, and then explain why you should focus on just one of them.
Approach 1: Tackling sustainability is good for business
The first argument is basically that tackling sustainability is good business sense. (I’ll talk about sustainability throughout the guide, but similar arguments apply to tackling climate change as well.)
I first got involved with sustainability back in the 90s. One of my colleagues back then developed one of the first UK programmes to encourage SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) to manage their environmental impact. He was able to demonstrate that action on the environment could go hand-in-hand with increased profitability.
At the time other evidence for this was pretty limited and few businesses, large or small, were convinced. Jump forward 20 years and the view that sustainability is good for business is widespread. Google “is sustainability good for business?” and you’ll find endless articles, often written by business leaders about their organisation’s commitment to sustainability and how it’s good for the business.
This argument is behind most big sustainability campaigns, like the SME Climate Hub, backed by the United Nations and some leading business and climate groups.
This so-called “business case for sustainability” has come a long way in the last twenty years or so, and is now pretty much mainstream.
Tackling sustainability can be good for business in a number of ways (and they generally apply to other kinds of organisation as well). Here are some of the main benefits:
- Sustainability can be a driver to reduce costs by managing resources more efficiently. This is good for business and good for the planet.
- Working on meaningful sustainability goals can give businesses a competitive advantage by appealing to the increasing interest in this agenda among investors, employees and customers.
- It can keep insurance and lending fees affordable by reducing exposure to climate- and sustainability-related risks.
- Reducing exposure to these risks can also make the business attractive to investors.
- Integrating sustainability issues into strategy and operations can help build a more resilient business, protecting it against damage and disruption, directly and in the supply chain.
There’s now a significant weight of evidence behind the argument that tackling sustainability can enhance business success in these kinds of ways. There’s a useful summary of the evidence in this article from the World Economic Forum: Why sustainability is crucial for corporate strategy.
Problems with the business case for sustainability
So, if you’re developing a sustainability strategy or initiative for your organisation, the business case for sustainability will be important.
There’s a good article from IMD, a leading Swiss business school, How to make the business case for a sustainability strategy which explains “why any successful sustainability strategy needs to be underpinned by a solid business case”.
But the business case by itself is not enough. Unfortunately, there’s are two big problems with the business case for sustainability.
Unsustainable opportunities remain tempting
It can certainly help most businesses improve profitability and become more resilient but the first problem is that even if they pay lip service to sustainability, for many businesses there will be temptations to make money from unsustainable opportunities.
We need ambition beyond good practice
The second problem is that it can mean businesses simply tackle some relatively easy costs savings, the so called ‘low hanging fruit’ and make some minor course corrections with their strategy.
By itself, the business case is rarely a spur to real ambition and innovation for sustainability.
Maybe I’m being harsh; after all some progress on sustainability is still progress, but tackling the climate and nature crises, and the other aspects of sustainability, needs more than the rolling out of good practice.
For years now the IPCC has become increasingly clear that climate change can only be tackled with a transformation of society and the economy, and the same applies to the biodiversity crisis.
And recently, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres warned that we face ‘collective suicide’ over the climate crisis.
Of course, this is a much, much bigger problem than any one business or organisation can tackle alone, it’s a global social and political problem. But as part of the solution, real ambition and innovation by businesses will be essential, and by itself, the business case can’t deliver that.
We’ll come back to want all this means for you and your sustainability initiative soon, but first let’s look at another motivator for action on sustainability.
Approach 2: Connect with people’s concern about the climate and nature crisis
In the 90s when I was first getting involved in sustainability, it was pretty niche interest mainly among environmentalists and academics.
We were learning more and more about how modern life was damaging nature and changing the climate, and about the knock on effects this would have on people across the world
We were worried, but unless there was a high profile environmental campaign in the news, most people were pretty unaware of what was happening.
Now things are very different. We’ve had endless international summits, and widespread coverage in the media. Before it often seemed like the problems only affected people on other continents, now we’re all experiencing these changes in real time:
- the seasons are noticeably shifting,
- weather records are regularly broken,
- flooding and wildfires are more and more widespread.
In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for anybody not to be aware that we’re changing the climate and damaging nature.
‘Ordinary people’ do care
Concern about this stuff is sometimes painted as a western, middle-class issue, or something that’s no one outside the ‘green bubble’ cares about. This was never true, and it’s not true now.
In 2016 I helped carry out research for the Scottish Government into what ‘ordinary people’ thought about climate change. We ran focus groups across Scotland and we found that even though people were often unclear about the details, most people:
- were concerned about climate change,
- they wanted to do something about it, and
- they felt the government should be doing more.
More recently, in 2021 Ipsos MORI (pdf) found that among G20 countries:
- 73% of people believe Earth is close to “tipping points” because of human action;
- 83% of people want to do more to protect and restore nature.
Why don’t people talk about their concern for nature at work?
It’s a bit weird isn’t it, that most people are concerned about climate and nature, and they want to do something about it, but this seems to be pretty much a taboo subject in most organisations! It’s rarely talked about at work.
I think there are lots of reasons for this, but the three big ones are:
Only the business case feels legitimate
Our culture has trained us that at work, the success of the organisation is the only thing that matters, so this means the language of the ‘business case for sustainability’ is the only one that feels legitimate.
Emotions are unprofessional
Sustainability and climate change can be emotional subjects, and emotional stuff is generally considered private, and talking about it at work is often seen as unprofessional.
It’s difficult and uncomfortable
And following on from that, talking about climate change and the nature crisis can be difficult and uncomfortable:
- people can feel judged,
- they can often feel powerless,
- they may have to admit they don’t know the answers, which is pretty high risk in many organisations.
Tapping into this concern to build support for your initiative
But here’s the thing: Every successful sustainability initiative, in any sector or type of business, that I’ve come across has always been led by someone who cares deeply about the climate and nature crises, about what we are doing to the living world, including our fellow humans.
I’ve discussed this with my colleagues and many other people working in sustainability for many years, and we really can’t think of any exceptions.
People leading these initiatives might not talk about their concern in public, but because we’ve often worked closely with them, or interviewed them for research, we’ve discovered that they do care deeply.
Just to get this straight: people leading successful sustainability initiatives are motivated by their concern for people and planet,
And what’s more, they tap into this concern in other people to create a strong team of collaborators and the support of effective allies.
You can tap into this concern to help your initiative succeed
In the next guide in this series we’ll be getting into exactly how you can go about it.
- I’ll explain how you can tap into this powerful motivator to build your support
- and not by using the business case for sustainability
- the business case, is important and we’ll come to this later in the season
- in the next episode we’ll be focusing on why it’s so important to tap into the fact that most people do care about the nature and climate crises.
Dubious? It’s a common reaction – like huge numbers of people you could be suffering from ‘pluralistic ignorance’! Read the next guide to find out what’s going on and what to do about it.
Why do you care about sustainability?
In this guide I’ve mentioned several times that most people are concerned about sustainability. The fact is, that’s actually a bit too simplistic. People aren’t really concerned about sustainability, which is a fairly abstract concept.
What people are concerned about is stuff that’s much more real. They’re concerned about the people and places that matter to them, that they have direct experience of:
- like their families, friends and neighbours;
- perhaps people they’ve met in different parts of the world;
- and the places where they live;
- places they visit, whether that’s a favourite local walk that’s now flooded regularly, or a camping spot in the hills that’s been ravaged by wild fire again.
But they’re also concerned about people and places that matter to them in a different way, people and places that are certainly real, but their connection is through their imagination:
- rainforests they’ve seen on tv, but never visited;
- the species we’ve never seen, and never will because they’re going extinct ;
- people they’ve never met whose lives are being affected right now, perhaps old people dying prematurely in European heatwaves, or the millions living on low lying islands and river deltas that are being flooded out.
We don’t need to have a direct, in person, experience to feel these kinds of connection.
It’s all this and more that is hidden behind the word ‘sustainability’. I invite you to consider what sustainability means for you – personally and emotionally.
Action: (Re)connecting with what ‘sustainability’ really means
All too often ‘sustainability’ is presented as an abstract goal to be achieved by technological means. It’s often divorced from the reality of people’s lives, their concerns for real people and places, and from their hopes and fears.
This activity helps you connect, or more likely, re-connect with the reality behind the word – and in doing so, will help you engage colleagues and others as you work to build support for sustainability in your organisation.
You will need:
- 15 minutes
- somewhere you can relax and focus without disturbance or distractions
- pen and paper
How it works:
- This is a ‘free form writing’ exercise where you reflect on some prompts and write down your thoughts
- Don’t over-think your responses to the questions, go with the flow and write down what comes into your mind without judgement or editing
- Keep writing until you feel you have come to natural end
When you’re ready, let’s start:
- First, a few prompts to get you started – don’t start writing yet:
- What lies behind the word ‘sustainability’ for you?
- What does it mean on a global scale?
- How is unsustainability impacting on society and nature across the world?
- What does it mean for people you have a personal connection with?
- What does it mean for places that you have a personal connection with?
Now it’s time to start writing:
- Write: “I care about…” and start writing to what it is you can about
- Keep going without judgement or over thinking, until you reach a natural end
- Now write “these matter to me because…” and write why they matter to you
- Keep going without judgement or over thinking, until you reach a natural end
- When you stop, start again with “I care about…”
- Continue the loop until you feel you have written all that you can at this time
Keep your notes safe and we’ll come back to this soon in a future guide.
A list of resources shared in the podcast episode and mentioned in this guide:
- SME Climate Hub
- World Economic Forum: Why sustainability is crucial for corporate strategy
- IMD: How to make the business case for a sustainability strategy
- UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres: U.N. chief warns that humanity faces ‘collective suicide’ over climate crisis
- Ipsos MORI survey see Gaffney, O., Tcholak-Antitch, Z., et al. Global Commons Survey: Attitudes to planetary stewardship and transformation among G20 countries. Global Commons Alliance (2021)
We’d love to answer your questions, and feature your experiences, about any aspect of leadership for sustainability on our podcast.
How to build support for sustainability in your organisation
This guide and accompanying podcast is part of a series to help you build support for sustainability in your organisation:
- Why building support is crucial to the success of your sustainability initiative
- Two approaches to build support for sustainability
- Why use emotion to build support for sustainability
- How to talk about sustainability with colleagues
- How to build support among directors and senior managers for sustainability
- more coming soon…