Put Into Practice

Sustainability: A Story of Opportunities

It is all a question of story. 
We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story. 
The old story – the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it – is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the new story. 
—Thomas Berry
Corporations are failing at sustainability. They need a new story – one that yields a livable future for all. The many young people looking for meaningful work are poised to be key players in that new story. If we let them.

Give the next generation who have concerns for the future the opportunity to act on them within your business. More than ever, our schools are turning out young professionals with credentials in sustainability who then struggle to find positions to apply that learning. Corporations must hire recent graduates with sustainability-related majors and minors and empower them to apply their knowledge while exploring the company’s impacts and opportunities.

Discovery: the first phase in sustainability
For companies of any size, first steps into the sustainability space are daunting. The trick is to see the first phase as a process of discovery, surfacing connections between the business and what may once have been considered to be issues of little concern (or externalities). Discovery is a process which leads to some uncomfortable truths, but also unimagined possibilities.

Hiring sustainability-tuned new employees is one way, unleashing existing employees with a genuine interest is another. Provide both with the possibility and the space to develop the new thinking, expertise, and competencies required to achieve authentic sustainability. We all need to see our sustainability challenge as a personal development and knowledge-gaining opportunity.
The problem is not that a company’s thinking is old, but that its thinking does not incorporate constant improvement and adaptation. 
—Mike Rother, Toyota Kata
We need to coach, mentor and develop those who want to make a difference and provide them with opportunities to advance their knowledge and competencies in sustainability. Get these young minds engaged in discovering and transforming our unsustainable practices. This is the least that a business can do for sustainability.

There are no sustainable companies…yet
At the same time, recent graduates looking for meaningful work in sustainability will need to recognize that virtually no company has made authentic commitments to sustainability. By that I mean, they do not fully understand sustainability and what it might mean for their company – insight easily gleaned by reading any "sustainability" report.

This does not mean that there is nothing that can be done to move these companies closer to authenticity. In fact, this is what the work of sustainability within companies truly entails. Sure there are impact reduction goals and such, and these need attention, but the real work in corporate sustainability is dismantling the status quo and changing minds and culture. And it is urgently needed right now.

The paradox is that even urgent culture change takes time. It requires adaptive persistence. By this I mean that obstacles must be expected so don’t give up, just change course. Take time to understand the situation and the barriers and do your best not to lose hope while moving forward. Authentic sustainability is disruptive to current practices, and they will not go gently into the night.
Here are a few things companies must do to write a new story:
  • Review hiring processes to make sure that sustainability-minded candidates are not filtered out in rigid screening routines.

  • Revisit job descriptions – if sustainability-minded candidates do not fit existing profiles, update them to include the new skills and new perspectives they now offer.

  • Review the onboarding process to make sure the company’s sustainability commitments are clear and communicate that new hires will play an active role in transforming the company.

  • Offer positions with dual responsibilities: core business needs plus sustainability – newcomers need to know the business to change it.

  • Perhaps most importantly, give people the time in their weekly schedule to make change.

  • And finally, remain open to new thinking when it arises – sustainability will not come from minor adjustments to business as usual, so be ready for change.

Our unsustainable business processes are a by-product of unsustainable thinking. Bring in some new thinking and new energy and cultivate new approaches. Seed the new competencies we will most certainly need to thrive in our imminent future and help write a new story.
I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.
—Louisa May Alcott



Jim Banks

Jim is a Sustainability Advisor based in Montreal.