LOHAS Boulder Tour ShowsThe Power of Story Telling

By Pauline S Chandler

A bus load of 35 LOHAS conference participants headed out last week to tour five businesses in Boulder, Colorado.  On our tour we visited:

1. Ecocyle
2. Celestial Seasonings
3. Gaiam
4. Ellies
5. Tesla

As I try to synthesize this day, I am struck by the power of story telling in sustainability.  Each business had a story to tell and all the participants on the bus had a story to tell.  What makes a compelling story?  What draws a listener in to learn more?  When did I find myself tuning out of the story?

Ecocyle is Boulder’s processing plant for all their recyclable materials now gathered as a single waste stream curb side program throughout the city of Boulder.  Over 50% of residents participate.  Ecocycle’s story begins with that acheivement.

This highly mechanized plant is fascinating, but even in all its technological wonder the reality is we create a ton of waste!   As we took our tour we watched a shift of workers sort material while conveyor belts sorted paper from glass from aluminum.  The story is one of scale and funding.  Ecocycle is “an enterprise” and they make a revenue stream by selling their sorted products.  As our host said…”we are mining the waste stream to sell to others to make new products.” Enterprise and mining stuck to me like glue in his story.  I was reminded that when we are telling our story we need to be mindful of the sticky factor of our words.  I am still wondering why enterprise and mining are the words I remember most of that site.

Celestial Seasoning sells teas and their tour is set for mass marketing.  Our host was trained to tour large groups, often with children, through the plant on a tight schedule. Her content was quick and snappy and while she asked for questions, we were all cautious to ask anything.  When I asked about Fair Trade, I was told “we are dedicated to fair trade”.  When I followed up with “are your products organic?” ….I was told, “no they are all natural.”  I did not ask another question.   Lesson learned in story telling…know your audience.  A group from LOHAS is going to want to know about fair trade and is going to know the difference between natural and organic products.

GAIAM headquarters is a place that has a vision.  The employees speak with passion and conviction.  Their product line extends from fitness to home to clothing to DVDs.  The story was a high speed tale of multiple partnerships.   Since I am always one to be cautious about consumption (no matter if it’s green or not), I got stuck in the story telling of yoga mats, DVD making,  organic towels,  cleaning products, composters and kept asking myself….do we really need all this stuff? As I watched my fellow participants, I listened to their reactions and how impressed they were with the company and the tour.  I was not.   Lesson learned…story tellers need to recognize that some people you will capture; and others you will lose.  I guess the question for all story tellers is how do I capture the most people?

Ellies is “trying to be the Target of green products”. It looked cool and had lots of great products but I just could not listen to another story about green consumption.  I went for a walk.  Lesson learned…..even the most dedicated sustainability people can only take so much information on green products.   I did enjoy my walk through Boulder though.

Tesla is selling electric race cars….”0-60mph in 3.9 seconds,” “250 miles per charge” and with tax credits you “can get the car for just under $100,000.”  For us sticker shock folks, the tour guide quickly spoke about their new car for 2012 that will have 4-6 seats instead of 2 seats, go 300 miles on a charge, and be in the $50,000 range. The lesson…….if you are going to try and market an outrageously expensive item,  let people see how a company is preparing the next generation of items for a wider audience.  I did get to test drive a Tesla roadster but that is a story for another day.

If you are involved in sustainability, you are a story teller.  If we want to tell sustainability stories we have to always be on our toes.  We have to know our audience, check our words carefully, and realize that people are selective listeners.  I probably missed a lot today but some words stuck to me and those are the words that the story tellers need to know about.  It would be interesting to ask after telling our stories…  “what words stuck to you the most?”  This will certainly help us refine our messages for the next time we are asked to tell our sustainability story.


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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