Go to Top

The Four Necessary Conditions Of A Sustainability Program

I’m a sucker for the underdog. Always have been. Maybe it’s a product of being a long-time fan of the Boston Red Sox, waiting hopefully each year for the potential locked inside to play itself out. And there’s the operative word: potential. Over the years, I’ve always been attracted to the potential a particular down-and-out city clearly has, the great old “bones” of buildings that could potentially come to life again, the turn-around potential of a business scratching to make it in a super-competitive environment. My guess is that same instinct is in most of us, the instinct to want to take something and make it better, more vibrant.

By and large, we gravitate to clients that fit this general profile. But over the years, we’ve learned that potential, in and of itself, isn’t sufficient to ensure success for a sustainability program. Nope. Four conditions are necessary:

HAVING THE WILLINGNESS TO DEVELOP A BOLD VISION. This sounds easy. After all, what’s so difficult about being willing to imagine a new future for a business or community? Over time, however, we’ve realized that a significant number of entities have a hard time getting beyond the “we’ve tried that,” and “that won’t work here,” type of thinking. The mindset here is risk-aversion rather than reward-seeking, despite the fact that continuing the status quo in the face of changing market conditions is the true risky strategy. So having the willingness to be bold and visionary is critical.

HAVING COMMITTED LEADERSHIP. In the context of a municipality this means committed leadership from elected officials, government heads, and business and community leaders. In the context of a business, this means a similar across-the-board commitment from those in charge of managing aspects of the enterprise. Typically, a systemic-wide sustainability program will take a lengthy period of time to implement (I’d say around a decade). And for such a program to be successful, it must be embedded in a culture that can weather changes in personnel.

HAVING DEVOTED RESOURCES. To state the obvious, a sustainability mandate that is insufficiently funded is asking for trouble. Committed, sustained underwriting—even if it is seed funding—is critical. But money is not the only issue here. A sustainability program needs devoted intellectual capital, with the knowledge (institutional, technical, etc.) to get things accomplished. A sustainability program also needs devoted human capital. This doesn’t mean simply the hiring of a full-time sustainability manager (although that helps), but freeing up time to enable staff to work on initiatives. Ultimately, a successful sustainability program is a program touched by all.

HAVING INTERNAL CAPACITY. Visioning is easy. Getting the commitment of leadership and devoted resources are also quite do-able. But having the talent within a culture (business or community) to implement a sustainability program is not to be underestimated. You can generate all the great ideas in the world, but if you lack the troops to get it done, forget about it.

It’s important to note that it is very rare for a business or a community to have all four of these ingredients at the outset. In fact, we often start working with businesses or communities that have only two of these necessary conditions in place. Our first job often is to shore up a third point of contact – and then work diligently on the weakest of the four.

I like to think of it by way of a rock-climbing metaphor. This sport boils down to having four points of contact on the rock-face (two hands, two feet). It is often said that three points of contact offer stability; less than three and you are simply unstable. The same is true here. In fact, it gives me a bit of pause to remember that my mentor, Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, Inc., always referred to his journey as one of climbing Mt. Sustainability, one step, one person, at a time.