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Overcoming Objections to Sustainability: Initiate, Don't Wait

This lesson is a part of an audio course Overcoming Objections to Sustainability by Aurora Dawn Benton

You've probably heard the adage "don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today."

That certainly applies to sustainability. You've probably picked up on how overlapping these objections are. There are often several at play at once. We've looked at excuses like 'it costs too much' or 'we don't know where to start'. This one is closely related to those. Instead of a hard 'no' to the idea, the answer is more like "eventually we'll get around to it."

There is always going to be a good reason to put it off, especially when it's a question of time and resources. The two I hear most often are related to positions and budgets. Either the decision-makers are waiting to hire someone who will have the sustainability-related responsibilities or a primarily affected department is due for a new leader or major reorganization. From a budget perspective, many companies have annual budget cycles, and it may be difficult to introduce or inject new ideas outside of that planning cycle.

Of course, these ARE legitimate reasons to hold off on starting a big new project but be careful about lumping all sustainability ideas into this "let's wait" category which is something I have encountered.

If you just go ahead and initiate, you can begin generating momentum quickly. Start now! Start today! And it's okay to start small. Just start!

Here are a few tips for getting started.

First, a good place to start is to take something already in place and just work on taking it to the next level. This will require less effort than starting something brand new. Recycling programs are a great example of this. They exist in many places but often with lackluster results.

Second, take a grassroots approach. Don't wait for a formal launch or approval. Start an informal green team. Now do be careful, you don't want to go rogue and do something that could damage your career or organization, but you can do a lot before the sustainability program receives official status. I teach a college class on starting green teams, and I often hear stories of how the students' managers gave a rather passive approval, like "okay whatever". I think because it's a college class assignment the managers don't take it seriously so the students sort of fly under the radar. Inevitably the rest of the story goes something like this. Once my manager saw how the team bonded and had better attitudes, or once my supervisor saw how much money we saved or whatever the results the students generated, their manager started getting more involved, and the sustainability program became more official.

At the time I am recording this lesson, we are 10 months into a global pandemic, and I have heard from many that sustainability initiatives can't startup now because of COVID. Again, I will refer to my college students as a source of inspiration. They are still out there starting green teams and starting up initiatives, especially in areas such as reducing food waste and paper usage.

Next, prioritization is an aspect of the "we need to wait" as well the "we don't know where to start" excuses. In both cases, those who are being asked to give permission to proceed may feel overwhelmed with the sustainability ideas. There are many ways to select priorities, but you should select them strategically. Here are 5 prioritization options to consider:

One. Choose the priority that will resonate most with the person creating the most difficult obstacles. If a key decision-maker keeps saying 'we need to wait' then show them how sustainability is tied to market trends, customer demands, shareholder expectations, or source of urgency for that person.

Two. Align sustainability efforts with corporate goals. Many organizations have a values statement, or mission statement that claims care for customers or employees or communities is part of their DNA, so if you can show how your idea delivers on those commitments and enhances the overall value of the brand, then executives are more likely to at least hear you out. Be sure you also bring the financial justification along to seal the deal.

Three. Determine what customers want and respond to as it relates to sustainability. It's easy to lump sustainability into one big category, but consumers will often fixate on specific problems. For example, while climate change is one of the most urgent sustainability issues of the day, most people will respond more to messaging on plastic reduction simply because it's what they can see and feel they have a direct impact on. Imagine how messaging about reduced plastic packaging in your products will resonate with customers. If you are in a business scenario, work with the sales and marketing team to learn more about the sustainability questions appearing in RFPs, or requests for proposals.

Four. Look at what the industry and competitors are doing. Sometimes the best way to get the attention and devotion of executives is to tap into a competitive drive. Perform a detailed analysis of what key competitors are doing in regards to environmental and social impact, as well as gather information on what industry and professional associations suggest. Some industry groups have detailed sustainability committees, recommendations and white papers, and other resources you can use to demonstrate that sustainability is an integral part of industry operations.

Five. Start with whatever is quickest, easiest, and cheapest. Don't make the work of sustainability harder than it needs to be. Begin within your span of control and model to others how change is simple and painless. This is especially true of initiatives like turning out lights, powering down equipment, using less paper, reusing cups, etc. There is a saying "don't despise small beginnings." You have to start somewhere so you may as well start with the easiest and fastest ideas. Now don't forget while you are taking these small steps to gather the data on the materials and money you are saving so when you want to graduate to more complex programs, you can prove your track record and make the business case.

Remember that something will always fill the space you create when you delay starting a sustainability project, so be intentional. Don't give sustainability lip service. Put actions to your words. Do a little each day, even if it's just research and preparation, so that the momentum will give you and others encouragement to keep going the next day. Individual steps aggregate into collective shifts, or put another way, an ocean of change is made up of millions of drops – Each. One. Counts.

In the next lesson, I'll talk about involving customers and stakeholders in your sustainability initiatives to give them more power.

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Written by

Aurora Dawn Benton