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Overcoming Objections to Sustainability: Invest in the Sustainability Business Case

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

One of the most common gut reactions to sustainability is "it will cost too much". The best way to convince higher-ups or any sustainability naysayer to support your initiative is to show them the value of the investment, to make an economic business case for sustainability.

A common assumption about sustainability initiatives is that they will add expenses, particularly that sustainable materials and options are more expensive. And while there may be sustainability programs that initially raise costs or expenses, you can build a lot of credibility and momentum by starting with the low hanging fruit ideas that easily generate a positive return. Especially by focusing on those that lower costs.

If you encounter the "it costs too much" excuse, remember that this statement is generally made without an actual calculation to determine one way or another whether the investment will have a positive return or the length of time for an investment payback.

Keep in mind that the return can take many forms. The most straightforward are ones that save money in terms of utility or materials costs. Lowering energy by powering down escalators or turning off lights during off-hours usage will lower energy bills. Double-sided printing has environmental benefits but also cuts your paper costs in HALF! Honestly, it never ceases to amaze me how many of these really easy options still have not been addressed in the organizations I work with.

It might seem almost too easy, but that does not mean it will be easy. Believe it or not, these types of initiatives might still face resistance, but I find that hard numbers in black and white can change the tune of the opposition. It's easy to wave off an idea, but it's another thing to dismiss a business case that clearly shows lowered costs. So even if your idea has what seems like a clearly obvious economic return, take the time to do the math and present the numbers.

To discover the possible sustainability initiatives that will clearly generate financial benefits, work with a green team or cross-functional task force to identify areas of excess and waste. Perform audits in these areas, which is to say investigate what is leading to the waste. You can do this through observing behavior, conducting informal interviews or even formal surveys, and reviewing documents such as purchase orders. You will likely encounter some "we've always done it this way" objections along the way so all the more reason you need this financial justification for the change.

Once you have addressed many of the low hanging fruit initiatives, you can move on to ideas with more complex business cases. Remember to always capture and report the triple bottom line benefits of your programs so that you gain credibility and trust of your colleagues and executives. This will make it easier to present the financial business case for those ideas where the benefits may be harder to quantify and explain.

For example, implementing a sustainability program that improves air quality requires a greater leap of faith from an economic standpoint. It is likely such an effort can support an overall wellness theme or even lower turnover rates and improve productivity; however, those outcomes are challenging to prove and quantify. In these cases, take time to search for industry and academic studies that show such results in similar or even different scenarios. And start with changes that have no or very little difference in costs.

For example, you may find a higher quality air filter is available from a vendor willing to offer them at the price of your current option. You may still encounter obstacles mentioned in previous lessons such as policies, perceived or real, that appear to block your ability to change vendors. In this case, you should share the social and environmental benefits so as to nudge procurement towards the better option.

Similarly, if your business case justification is revenue generation, that is you believe your idea can either garner a higher price, attract additional customers, or even open up a new revenue stream, then you will need research and as much evidence as you can gather to support your claims.

Investment isn't just about the money required to implement the idea; it's going to take an investment in time and resources to build the business case to get you there and to change the culture to support the initiative. This is where a green team can really help. A team can help you share the responsibilities of research, gathering data, and building a business case, especially if you are not comfortable with spreadsheets and formulas. Find someone in the organization who enjoys solving budget-related problems and recruit them to join your cause and help you crunch the numbers.

In the next lesson, I emphasize the importance of just getting started, no matter how small the step.

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Written by

Aurora Dawn Benton