Learning How to Make the Case for Sustainability

By Pauline S Chandler

The language of sustainability can be complex, particularly if it’s nested in systems thinking.  Learning how to make the case for sustainability needs to be situational.  I customize my “making a case for sustainability” style by asking a lot of questions.

I find the best way to craft questions is by observing businesses and sustainability coordinators in action.   Last week, I took 16 Antioch University New England MBA students on a tour of three very different businesses in New England.

1.  New England Wood Pellet
2.  Monadnock Paper Company
3.  Nubanusit Neighborhood

We toured the businesses as part of their first MBA class, “Introduction to Sustainability.”

A few reflections on these tours helped me to see how observing others can inform the types of questions we can ask when making the case for sustainability.   Imagine….

1.  Sixteen MBA students standing on the floor of the processing plant, each holding a handful of steaming hot pellets.   “How do you market your brand?”  “How do you convince consumers to pay more for your quality pellets?”  “What steps are you taking to reuse the heat in the system?”     We found that marketing is their biggest challenge and that unlike solar energy, which is getting quite a bit of governmental support and backing; wood pellets are standing on their own and having a hard time getting any attention on a national scale.  “It’s easy to think about burning wood when you live in a forested state.”   New England Wood Pellet has invested R&D dollars in managing their heat processes and has developed partnerships with several entrepreneurs.  It strikes me that asking questions about partnerships could reveal a lot about sustainability practices and visions.

2. A high energy, fast talking sustainability coordinator, marching through the paper making plant demonstrating all the improvements in the process and particularly in the waste stream management.  For example, the paper that does not meet quality standards is put back into the processing cycle,   the final waste from the paper making process is used by local farms, and the plant is supplied by hydroelectric power. The word on the block is that Monadnock Paper Company (MPC) is tuned into the entire life cycle of their product and that is selling paper.   MPC focuses on making paper through a partnership with Forest Stewardship Council, FSC.  Companies are demanding an FSC supply chain and sustainable business practices and customers like Gap, Nike, some wine companies, and more are using MPC because of the quality of their paper and their environmental stewardship policies.   The grass roots efforts on the plant floor engage all the paper workers in developing the environmental stewardship policies but as the students would say about the sustainability coordinator…”she’s got fire power….”  “she’s a bulldog”….. “she gets things done”.   Her style is pushing, pulling and energizing MPC and creating a new market demand that never existed.

3. A perfect summer day in New Hampshire sparkles through the housing development of Nubanusit Neighborhood, a cohousing project in Peterborough, NH.  Our students gather with five of the residents and start asking challenging questions about decision making and inclusiveness.  They want to learn about how consensus is used to make decisions.  The sustainable farming, heating and energy practices are not what intrigues them the most; it’s the governance that grabs them.  When residents start talking about “too many meetings,” students start to think about sustainability through the lens of individuals and organizations.  What does the sustainable self look like in a sustainable community?

By observing and listening to my students, I start to crystallize my “make the case for sustainability” questions.  These questions get customized depending on the business and where they are on the continuum of adopting a sustainability vision.  A few to begin with:

  • Who is involved in the decision to adopt sustainable practices?
  • Why is sustainability important to your business?
  • What are some of the easier steps you’ve adopted to move towards more sustainable practices?
  • Who are the sustainability champions in the business?   Why are they effective at developing a sustainability vision?
  • What support is there for sustainability from the top?
  • How are you recording your successes?
  • What metrics have you adopted for measuring sustainability?
  • What role does life cycle analysis play in operations?
  • Who has the fire power to move sustainability forward when there are deep challenges?
  • What are your biggest barriers to a sustainable business?

What questions would you add when you are trying to make the case for sustainability in your workplace?

Next week, I’ll be touring with LOHAS in Boulder and will provide some more thoughts on how we can better make the case for sustainability.


Pauline S Chandler is the Chairperson of the Organization and Management Department and the Director of the MBA in Sustainability at Antioch University New Hampshire, Keene. She teaches a wide range of topics from earth systems in organizations to leadership. Her professional mission is to help people understand how to advocate for people and the planet through sustainable and profitable business practices.

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4 responses

  1. I love the paper company example. In the first section, you mention that sustainable organizations are having a tough time marketing their sustainable practices. Then in the paper company section you talk about a high energy sustainability coordinator walking you through the entire production process. What if they took video of the walk-through, and posted on their website & social networks for all to see. That would be a great way to spread the word about your business.


    Ryan Taft

  2. The biggest barrier to sustainable businesses is getting the average consumer to look beyond the upfront cost of something like a pellet stove, for example, and making them to realize there’s more at stake here than their personal budget.

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