Selling Sustainability

Green_biz_jpegOriginally posted February 2008
by Anna Clark, GreenBiz.com, on her column: Strategic Thinking

Anna_clark_jpegFor the past two years, media attention around companies "going green"
has mounted to a crescendo. Are we finally reaching the long-awaited
critical ma
ss?

Not even close. 

The scientific case for climate change may be sealed but the majority
of business leaders are still suspicious of sustainability. The source
of their inertia may surprise you. Their primary concern isn’t "Why
should I?" as much as "How do I?" In my experience, the real issue lies
in the question they are often afraid to ask: "How do I sell
sustainability?"

Let’s begin with an example of how not to sell it. I was invited by
a local mayor to deliver a speech on the U.S. Mayor’s Climate
Protection Agreement to his town council. More than 700 mayors in 50
states have now signed the agreement, making it one of the most
significant grassroots movements to reduce emissions in the U.S. I was
sure the town would sign it. The mayor even drives a hybrid Lexus.

When I arrived at the town council meeting, I immediately sensed
that people saw me as a pot-stirring outsider. One council member even
went on record to oppose my speech before I began. The mayor became
strangely silent. Not only did the town refuse to sign the agreement,
several people followed me into the parking lot trying to convince me
that climate change isn’t real.

Where did we go wrong?

A postmortem discussion with the mayor revealed that he was taken
by surprise by people’s strong reactions against the idea. Although the
mayor might have gotten on board, his residents would not. He didn’t
lead them towards it as much as sit back and hope.

It turns out that many had pressed the town council ahead of time
to refuse the agreement based on ignorance. How, in the face of such
overwhelming evidence, can people still be so slow to change?

Human beings are not, and never have been, swayed by science alone.
Sustainability champions who underestimate the human factor can never
facilitate genuine change in their organizations. To successfully sell
sustainability to all but the most sophisticated audience, we must
first dispense with the certitude of science and master the art of
sales.

Whether you are trying to rally employees around a conservation
initiative or devise a green marketing campaign to win customers, here
are six tips for selling your green strategy:

1. Understand how Change Works

Recent success stories from the largest or most progressive
companies aside, your typical CEO still does not have environmental
responsibility, beyond compliance, on his radar. Many business leaders
struggle with how to present a green strategy to stakeholders such as
upper-level management and employees. Seeing yourself as a change agent
will empower you to navigate these channels.

Human beings are subjective creatures; to sell them on
sustainability, you must meet them where they are. Any organization can
have a mixture of leaders, followers, laggards, or curmudgeons. As an
agent of change, you must learn to present your green strategy in an
appropriate context for different personalities. Generally speaking,
secretaries like to be supportive and nurturing, while the CEO is all
about the bottom line. Sustainability has enough benefits to go around
for each personality type.

2. Inspire Your Audience

Many people are afraid of change. Even when the leader is open to
it, the followers might resist. Laying a foundation of education will
help grow green roots in your corporate culture.

Use communications methods such as email and newsletters to share
messages about your sustainability goals. If you intertwine facts with
personal experience, people will be more inspired to engage in your
mission.

Find creative and fun ways to spread awareness in order to build a
foundation for more strategic sustainability efforts. Consider inviting
an expert to deliver a motivational seminar or suggest a discussion
group, such as those sponsored by the Northwest Earth Institute.

3. Emphasize Practice, Not Theory

We live in a culture of consumerism and instant gratification. The
business world thrives, or at least survives, by this reality. It seems
counterintuitive to most executives to be diverted by something as soft
as sustainability seems to be. The common misconception is that
sustainability is an esoteric pursuit of the intellectual elite.

In reality, sustainability is actually mere common sense
masquerading as nonsense to a lot of people. In fact, it makes so much
sense that it would be impossible to argue with if it were better
understood. The rub is that the people most committed to teaching
sustainability have tended to be incapable of communicating with the
perpetrators, so they end up preaching to the choir. We now know that
real change requires us to engage the business sector.

Discussing deep ecology will not win the support of your average
executive. Even ideas like the "triple bottom line" can still seem too
abstract. Instead of talking theory, try emphasizing the practice.
Begin with the answering the real questions: What are you really
proposing? What are the tangible benefits? How exactly will the plan
work? Has anyone else done this before with success? If so, how did it
work for them?

4. Build Consensus

Without building consensus, your great green idea may remain on the
ground. People support that which they help to create. Invite key staff
members from each department to join a "green team." They will feel
honored to help take the company in a new direction.

5. Demonstrate Bottom-Line Value

Put together a cost benefit analysis of savings that can be
achieved through conservation efforts. If green marketing is your goal,
research the LOHAS market or the booming Clean Tech industry. It’s difficult to argue with something as thrilling as opportunity.

6. Be Bold

Sitting on the fence merely guarantees that your competition will
beat you to the punch in the growing green economy. You don’t need a
PhD in environmental science to get into the game. Today’s green
business gurus aren’t coming out of the ivory tower. Some of the
boldest approaches are coming from entrepreneurs with no previous green
credentials.

You may not have heard of Joe Harberg yet, but you will. Harberg,
the founding partner of a $60 million investment fund, is also the
principal partner of Current Energy,
the "world’s first energy efficiency store." Harberg knows how to sell:
the branding is hip and the store is all about saving people money. The
formula is proving profitable, leading to a growth of 300 percent in
the past year.

Harberg is spreading sustainability through selling, not just
talking. "We’re basically selling a savings," said Harberg. "We’ve got
about 20 items here that, in the right combination, can save you up to
50 percent on your electricity bill."

Harberg has become a local celebrity in Dallas, even hosting his
own radio spot, the Current Energy Report, every Saturday afternoon.

For a lesson in boldness, consider another entrepreneur: British
billionaire Richard Branson, who has offered a prize of $25 million to
anyone who can find a way to rid the earth of CO2. Branson has also
invested more than $3 million in clean technology.

"The Earth cannot wait 60 years," he said. "I want a future for my children and my children’s children. The clock is ticking." 

O.K., so not everyone has the staggering resources and reckless
abandon of Sir Richard. But rest assured, if you learn how to sell
people on your green idea, you’ll make your company more competitive
and create a cleaner world at the same time.

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople,
a consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes save money and
bolster their brand through the leading-edge principle of
sustainability.

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