Dear Environmentalist,

Sun, Mar 22, 2009

4. Leadership, 7. Featured

Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied
Til he rules everything
Bruce Springsteen, Badlands

Dear Environmentalist,

Thanks for your passion and for doing so much to bring attention to the environmental disaster we are heading for. I applaud your science and the clarity of your argument and mostly for the energy and commitment you bring to the cause. Taking the argument to the business community is brave and necessary – we need to change the behavior of the uncommitted.

We’ve got a problem though. Environmentalists don’t talk in terms of profit and loss – the kind that shows up on a quarterly income statement. I don’t know many (any?) executives who can act now to ‘prepare’ for some form of environmental tax. Carbon footprint – haven’t found a client yet who has anything beyond a social curiosity.

If we want to influence the people who captain industry, we need to speak to them on their terms. Just about every CEO I know of will say he or she cares about the environment. But very few do anything significant about it. Which is a shame, because there is more common ground than difference.

What we have here is a classic design problem. The engineers (environmentalist) are thinking about the problem in different terms than the user (executive). Think about the classic VCR flashing clock. Setting a clock was easy for an engineer – after all, he or she designed the system! But users struggled with the complicated menus. The difference is one of design – the engineer never ‘designed’ the user experience, and the translation from expert model to user model never occurred.

Carbon footprint is a meaningless term to the majority of executives. It does not translate to the quarterly income statement, nor does it translate to any of the key metrics the executives typically watch. (I am speaking of small business in particular.) The environmentalist argument is stuck in an expert’s model. We need to spend time ‘designing’ the argument. I know that executives want to change the clock on their VCRs. I just have to give them Tivo to make it easy.

Designing starts with understanding. And to understand the executive, we have to start by recognizing the extraordinary pressure he or she is under to earn short-term profit. We are talking about small business here where cashflow is everything. These execs do not have the ability to sustain short term losses in the service of long-term gain. If there is no viability in the short term, there is no sustainability in the long term. This would be true under any economy, but more so under this one. It’s a bit rough out there right now.

Not only do we want to understand that companies need to keep earning more and more, we also understand that this is ok. We can’t hold it against an executive who wants to keep improving – a lack of satisfaction can lead to continual growth.

So here are a few thoughts:

  1. Ask yourself ‘why’ an executive should consider an initiative and couch the suggestion in terms of the reason that matters to him. This is a great way to get to root cause. Why does an executive care about recycling? Because he wants to reduce waste. Then think about the benefits of waste reduction. Don’t talk to him about recycling. Let him know you can save him money on garbage hauling. Utilize the ‘5 Why’s.’
  2. Forget recycling and think about reuse. The economics of recycling are specious at best. Reuse tends to have a much more favorable ROI. Show them the example of Terracycle.
  3. I have never found an executive who embraced sustainability as a strategic initiative at the onset of a conversation. I have failed every time. Start tactically. Pick one project that you know will succeed and complete that one. Then go on to the next. I have had the most success starting with a project related to energy savings. It is very easy to see the benefits to lower energy prices.
  4. Be patient – you are trying to change a habit. Focus on education. Education is not a rant. (That’s for blog posts.) Education is patient questioning. Education is listening. Education is translating the expert’s view to the user’s view. Be prepared to educate.
  5. Don’t give up. In sales they say one prospect will say ‘no’ 8 times before the ‘yes’ arrives. You need to keep yourself in the game through all the ‘no’s.’ So conserve your political capital for a marathon, not a sprint.

Just one person’s opinion. What do you think? Want more info? Have something to add?


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. kondo Says:

    Very thoughtful. I work for a number of different companies and have found executives quick to act only when they smell the $. One thing that worked for me was to start a conversation with an ROI calculation. I always try to target payback of less than 2 years. By the way, love the Springsteen quote!

  2. Graham game Says:

    I’m sorry but I found your ‘Dear Environmentalist’ piece deeply patronising. I accept that over many years some environmentalists have not understood the needs & priorities of business, but many have & do, & such broad & sweeping generalisations are immature, inaccurate & unhelpful.

    Our environment is not simply another issue that businesses & others should take an interest in, we are talking about natural systems that we ALL depend upon for life & meaning – no healthy environment, no natural resources – no business, no life. Period. It’s not up to environmentalists to educate business leaders, that should be done in schools1!

  3. ericc22 Says:


    Thank you for taking the time to offer your opinion!

    Let me start by offering a qualification – my experience is with small businesses with revenues under $100 million per year.

    I can only speak to the companies I have worked with. And of those, all care but not a single one has come to me with action on sustainability. In this economic environment especially, it is viability of the firm that matters first. This is why many of my clients have held off on high ROI projects like lighting retrofits-the cashflow is needed for more critical areas of the business.

    And, my opinion is different from yours on education. I feel passionately that part of my role is to educate my clients. I wish that this was taught in schools but it was not. My job is to translate these matters into ideas that the business owner can relate to. Time spent educating them is time well spent. I wish they cared about the environment like I do, but I recognize many do not. I want to convert them anyway.

    My approach has generally been to get simple projects moving and use those simple projects to educate the company and change the culture. Those first projects are low cost and we use those results as a catalyst to further training and bigger changes. No generalization, just what works for me!

    Do with these comments what you wish! And, thank you very much for taking the time to respond and I look forward to any further thoughts you have on the topic.


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