When you are suggesting an organization work on some area of sustainability, you may get the "we're already doing that" excuse. Why do I call this an excuse? Well, because in my experience, this is often not exactly true. I find that it represents a misunderstanding of what is possible in regard to that area of social or environmental sustainability.
Remember what I said in an earlier lesson? Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. So you never truly arrive; there is always more you can do. Of course, we should celebrate what HAS been accomplished, but don't stop there.
So when a person claims "we're already doing that" they might really mean "we're doing all we feel we can" or "we're doing what we know to do."
Sometimes they are even pointing to an effort in one area and expecting they get credit for the entirety of what sustainability encompasses. So for some people "We have LED lights bulbs" is basically the same as "We're done with sustainability." As in "we've accomplished all there is to accomplish."
It may sound silly, but honestly, I encounter this frequently. I tour a lot of facilities, and when I ask about sustainability, I get this type of answer. As you can imagine it's more the tone that conveys this sentiment than the actual words.
And to be fair, people do want credit and acknowledgement for what they have achieved. So even if your organization or client is in their first steps of the journey, take time to celebrate that.
Another concept to understand here is the halo effect. If an organization does some aspect of sustainability well, there may be an assumption that this goodness extends to all of the company, brand, or products characteristics and activities.
This can also lead to greenwashing, which you should be careful not to practice. Greenwashing is projecting a more sustainable image or brand than what the reality is. This can be through misleading, exaggerating, or even downright lying and misrepresentation.
You have to be willing to uncover the facts, or you might get called out by the media or savvy social media followers. Occasionally I will see or hear an advertisement for a product that is claiming a sustainability feature but because I am more sophisticated in my knowledge and understanding of environmental claims than the average person I pick up on the greenwashing. More and more consumers are eco-aware, and so it is increasingly important to ensure you have your facts straight about the social and environmental benefits and consequences of your operations.
Because companies can be more easily called out these days, some decision-makers will avoid sustainability because they do fear it's never enough, and they will get criticized in the media or by advocacy groups.
That might be a risk, but if you investigate and transparently report on what you are doing, how it's going, and what you plan to do moving forward, you are likely to get a much more positive reaction.
The main benefit of investigating what's going on is to know the facts for yourself. It is harder to misrepresent what you are doing if you have a full picture of the situation. For example, I work with hospitality and catering companies on how to perform food waste audits.
When I first speak with a top-level decision-maker, such as a general manager or executive chef, I will often hear blanket statements about how well the organization is performing with regards to food waste. But then food waste audits reveal more than they imagined and show that there are issues with over-ordering, overestimating, over serving, and other practices that lead to incredible waste.
When you encounter those, who feel the organization has done enough, investigate the details so you can show them the opportunities that remain. Keep in mind that those opportunities are for the triple bottom line – not only is there more to be done for the environment and society, there may still be financial gains and costs savings to be realized.
Here are a few tips for investigating the facts and moving others to the next step of the journey.
First, you need to know where you are at. Sometimes we know we can do better just because it's intuitive. For example, if you feel unhealthy or your pants are tight, you probably know it's time to up your exercise game. You don't need a national weight chart to tell you you're overweight. But other health metrics may not be obvious without more technical and scientific measurement and comparison. For example, you likely would not know you have high cholesterol without a blood test, and the assessment of whether your cholesterol level is good or bad is based on research and millions of data points. Similarly, organizational decision-makers may need a more formal or technical assessment that puts their performance in the context of other, similar organizations and comes with expert feedback.
Which leads me to the next tip. Conduct audits in areas of environmental and social impact. You may even bring in outside auditors and consultants who can give you a thorough evaluation. For example, there are many companies that will do energy or water audits. In some municipalities, there are even funds and incentives to cover the costs of these audits. You can also perform internal audits of sustainability results. This can be an illuminating exercise indeed!
Next, set SMART goals. You are probably already familiar with this goal-setting framework, but in case you are not, SMART stands for goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. For this Investigate principle, the measurable aspect is especially helpful. Setting a goal can be inspirational, and it inherently means you want to do more or better. But HOW much more? To answer that you need to measure what you have already done. Remember the previous lesson and with that continuous improvement mindset, outline practical steps for getting to the next level.
Another recommendation is to use EXTERNAL benchmarks, especially regional or industry-based rankings. A benefit of using external metrics is that it can tap into the competitive nature of some organizational leaders. Sustainability becomes one more area where "winning" can be motivational. There are many awards and recognitions for sustainability.
While there is no destination in the sustainability journey, there are certainly milestones which should be recognized and celebrated.
Finally, the key to this Investigate principle is to document actions, capture data, and share results and intentions, with an emphasis on sharing. Set up a culture of measurement and reporting, and be sure you tell the story of your positive impact. Be transparent and authentic with both internal and external audiences.
In the next lesson, I address an absolutely critical approach to successful sustainability – integrating it throughout an organization.