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Sustainability Needs Strong Leadership

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

In this lesson, I want to explain why sustainability requires strong leadership.

If you think about it, this is true of any change. People don't like change. The leadership principles I share in future lessons can be applied for other initiatives that might face resistance. This could be upgrading technology, adding new people to a team, or introducing new product lines. You should find the principles I share to be broadly applicable.

There are many reasons why people resist sustainability, but one thing you should know is that it is not usually because they just do not care. Most people do care, and they do want to be part of solutions, but they have other reasons for resisting and the obstacles or excuses I'll share in later lessons are their way of avoiding a topic they don't feel comfortable addressing. But this does not mean they do not care.

So let's consider some of the reasons people might reject a sustainability initiative. Most of the time, it simply comes down to a lack of awareness. In so much of the work I do training organizations on sustainability, once I present the facts and show them how their behavior has the potential to either contribute to or solve the problem, there is an immediate and significant change in attitude and willingness to participate.

I know in my own personal journey of sustainability, one of the first changes I made my regular habits was how I buy chocolate. When I learned about a decade ago that there is still a lot of slavery in the chocolate supply chain, I could just no longer choose to consume commercial chocolate knowing the conditions under which people work to produce that product. I pay a lot more for chocolate, but I get a much higher quality product and feel better about how the farmers are compensated and treated.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I have not transformed every single category of purchasing yet. Every time something in my life alters, I find a new category of purchases I had not yet addressed. When I moved from an apartment to a home with a yard, I realized there is so much about sustainable lawn care I needed to learn.

When I got new puppies, I opted for reusable pee pads and ended up doing so much laundry the utility company sent me a notification that they had observed a spike in my water usage!

And that leads me to another challenge with sustainability: trade-offs. Which is better? Using handkerchiefs and cloth napkins that must be washed or using tissues and paper towels that will be thrown out? Buying organic food that was shipped 1500 miles or a non-organic option that was grown locally? Are these extremes the only options available? Couldn't I compost tissues and paper towels? What if the ingredients I need are not grown anywhere near me?

I could pose a hundred other questions like this. For some of these, you can find research that will confirm one choice as better for the environment than another; however, so often the answer is some form of "it depends".

These are just my small, personal examples, and they already seem so overwhelming. What about global issues? What about climate change? And what about the massive plastics problem? These problems can feel monumental, and it can be difficult to show people how their changes in behavior can have an impact.

Everyone is already so busy with so many responsibilities. If employees or managers just see sustainability as one more thing to add to their workload, it's understandable to face rejection.

You should know, as you prepare to promote sustainability initiatives, that people assume they are too busy or do not have the resources for whatever you're going to propose because their exposure to sustainability concepts may have created confusion. Often people do not even know what it really means. Now, don't get me wrong, sustainability initiatives can be complex, but they don't have to be. They can often be broken down into manageable steps.

I like to explain sustainability initiatives like trying to fit a size 10 foot into a size 6 shoe. If you try to cram a big, sophisticated sustainability project into an organization filled with people who are resisting the ideas, then both the foot and the shoe will break.

Leadership stretches an organization, just like a leather maker can stretch material to fit a larger foot. This course will teach you some principles to help you stretch your team and colleagues to take on bigger ideas. This work is easier if you ask others to join you.

This course is designed for anyone who is ready to take a step forward and be bold and courageous for sustainability. I don't assume you already have a special position within the organization. Leadership is about more than a title. It's also about more than a specific style or personality.

While those you may think of as leaders probably come to mind because of their charisma and passion, even if you are not that type of person, you can influence behavior by employing the leadership principles in this course. If you happen to be that dynamic, assertive personality type, then that's great and helpful, but if that's not you, be encouraged that the ideas I present in the course can be practiced by anyone.

The reason I present this course in terms of the top "excuses" is that I find people will rarely actually state the real reason for resistance. Rather than just say "I'm confused and I don't know what you expect of me" they will instead generally say one of the excuses presented in future lessons. People want to feel accomplished and justified, not inadequate or insufficient.

These excuses sometimes hide the true reasons, so the leadership principles I share are designed to get past the objection and focus on the way forward. Just don't get discouraged and keep in mind that it is likely not a rejection of you or your idea but maybe more a question of confidence or awareness. It's also important to remember that just because someone rejects an idea that to you is so clearly important or necessary, does not mean that person is not a good person, or even a good leader. There can be so many factors at play.

And at the end of the day, people just don't like change. So fundamentally, this course is about change management.

If you persevere and practice the principles I cover in this course, I hope you will see those around you embrace and support the change you are bringing about.

In the next lesson, I share the first of the 10 excuses. While the excuses are not presented in any particular order, I will say that this is one I encounter most. Where do we start? When we are not sure where to begin a new endeavor, it's easy to procrastinate or make excuses. So let's move on to less 4 and learn how you can identify your first or next steps in the sustainability journey.

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Written by

Aurora Dawn Benton