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Exhausted But Inspired: Gleanings From a Sustainability Director in the Trenches

3p Contributor | Tuesday September 22nd, 2009 | 1 Comment

By Angela Nahikian, director of Global Environmental Sustainability at Steelcase
The more fellow sustainability practitioners I’ve met, the more I have come to realize that while our industries vary, experiences are the same. Though we may progress at different rates, our organizations follow similar patterns of evolution and face many of the same challenges. Oh yes, and one more common thread – we are all exhausted by the sheer scale of the challenge.

But we’re equally inspired to take it further, because sustainability offers fertile ground for learning, innovation, and the opportunity to build a better model. I am sure you see it too. Whether at conferences, or sharing thoughts on blogs or in business settings, there is a new determination to broaden the impact of our work.

This determination is not born of pie-eyed naiveté. We have enough daily reminders this is still the front edge of the learning curve – investing countless hours managing the ripple effects of our work through the layers of a global supply chain; mentoring brand new team members who think sustainability is a “green product feature” in a market where customers demand authenticity and a holistic approach; wrestling new IT infrastructures into being.

And yet, every day, we are inspired by the colleague who stops us in the hall and shares a break-through 3BL idea on a napkin sketch; and by the business leaders and change agents driving rapid evolution and greater accountability throughout our organizations. For those committed to perpetual learning, who revel in complexity and love a blank sheet of paper, leading sustainability is a great gig. But most people in most companies want a road map, not a blank sheet of paper.

The practice of sustainability continues to evolve rapidly. We’re learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t. We need to think about how to effectively transfer our accumulating experience to ensure that sustainability moves from a loosely formed ‘collection of best practices’ to an evolving “standard of practice”. We need to be intentional about sharing our understanding – not just at a surface level and not just inside our companies.

What do you know?

Early on in the environmental sustainability movement companies started at their core competencies, and worked feverishly in silos; product teams designing for the environment, logistics teams focused on efficiency, and operations teams reducing waste and emissions…and best practices emerged. In fact, they‘re still emerging. Look at the environmental claims of market leaders and you will see staggering and increasingly impressive results.

At universities, engineering schools are taking these best practices and building curriculums on alternative energy & supply chain management and programs for materials chemistry and life cycle analysis. Architectural schools are creating programs to radically reinvent the way we build our world. Business schools and groups like Net Impact are inspiring our next generation of business leaders to be conversant in 3BL thinking. No question, the next generation has an ingrained passion for sustainability and their education is equipping them with impressive technical skills and literacy. Yet I fear that it may not yet be enough to enable them to embed sustainability in their organizations.

The implementation of sustainability across enterprises and industries is a systems design problem and takes a unique set of “how” skills – how to engage people in enterprise-wide cultural change, how to deliver sustainable metrics through global information infrastructures that do not yet enable them, how to embed learning frameworks that close the literacy gap within the organization and throughout the supply chain, how to identify strategic change agents and help them inspire new thinking throughout the company. It is “systems thinking across the organization” rather than “silo thinking within the organization” that will enable world-changing innovation.

But how?

With all the great work happening within our organizations sustainability professionals still spend a lot of time discussing “why” sustainability is important and ‘what’ it is like to enable the work. We don’t spend nearly enough time ensuring we are sharing ‘how’ it gets done across an enterprise, an industry, and around the world.

It will take a commitment by those of us in the corporate trenches to 1)translate our collective learning through our stories, 2) partner with the academic community to develop standard frameworks and tools, and 3) actively mentor the next generation of practitioners.

Being intentional about sharing what we’re learning through our day-to-day work can’t help but translate to greater success for our future leaders and organizations. But more importantly it may be the only clear path to the global, broad-sweeping change we all aspire to create.


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  • MH

    Thanks for the nice commentary. I have been trying to get my institution on board for the past year so it is nice to be reassured that this is a continuous and evolving project.