Sustainability Stories – Conundrum and Opportunity

Posted by  Christopher Kogler —July 10, 2014
Filed in Communication

We’ve all read and heard the word sustainability but how many of us can articulate what it means? When I started working in the sustainability space several years ago, I was frankly baffled that so many people knew the word, but so few could really explain its meaning. I still regularly ask people for their understanding of the concept and aside from sustainability officers and their troops, I continue to get a wide range of answers.

Willow school
Photo Courtesy of The Willow School © 2014

Sustainability directly involves economics, ecology, politics and culture. It encompasses wide areas of expertise and includes numerous business sectors. I like to say it encompasses the worlds of earth, air, wind and fire! Herein lays the conundrum. There is no easy way to explain sustainability; sustainability is truly Complex.

A sleep inducing definition

In 1987 the UN’s Brundtland Commission coined the definition most often quoted for the term, Sustainable Development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is an important concept; perhaps one of the most important concepts of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. But it puts me to sleep! It’s instantly forgettable (read it again, how much can you remember?!?)…in one ear and out the other… why should I care when I can’t even remember?

Why is one of the most profound and important ideas of our present era so unmemorable?

Sustainability business stories and how they help

In like manner, mounds of statistics quoting tons of carbon traded, gallons of water recycled and hectares of trees saved usually fade from our minds moments after hearing them. Definitions and statistics are simply not memorable. They’re not emotional nor do they paint a picture. However, stories do!

As leaders involved with our organization’s sustainability efforts, we need to start painting a picture and putting a human face on our facts and figures. Sustainability business stories can help us immensely in accomplishing this.

Sustainability leaders are faced with both challenges and opportunities. We all know that definitions and statistics are boring. But in addition to these challenges, we need to recognize that the concept of sustainability lives in what we’ll call the Complex Domain where the cause and effect of our actions is often understood only in hindsight. That’s because sustainable development is based on a complex network of nonlinear relationships; one small change in the nonlinear network can have profound changes on the outcome somewhere else in the network.

To date we’ve tried to understand these nonlinear relationships as if they resided in what we’ll call the Simple Domain where cause and effect is well known or the Complicated Domain where cause and effect can be ascertained by expert analysis.

In the Complex Domain we need a different set of tools to make sense of these nonlinear relationships. This is where the importance of stories comes into play. Stories are powerful tools for delving below the surface and making sense of complex, sometimes messy, nonlinear relationships. Stories also contain emotion and paint pictures we can see in our minds. Stories make sense of complex ideas like sustainability and importantly, stories are memorable.

Municipalities, NGO’s, large corporations, not-for-profits and educational institutions – all have made great strides in the last few years in conserving resources and becoming more sustainable. But, I’d venture to guess that aside from your sustainability officer (if you have one) and her team, few in your organization can articulate the sustainability mission and how it’s impacting your organization.

Painting memorable mind pictures

By crafting and telling business stories that highlight your sustainability efforts, you will be able to paint memorable pictures in your organization’s collective mind and clarify your sustainability mission.  If everyone in your organization is able to tell your sustainability stories and clearly understand what’s being accomplished, imagine the behavior changes that will occur and the positive impact on your bottom line!

I always like to highlight an organization I think offers a great example of the best practices I’m discussing. One educational institution comes to mind; The Willow School is located in Gladstone, New Jersey, USA. “The Willow School is a small, independent coeducational day school for students in preschool through eighth grade.”

Folks at The Willow School from the teachers to preschool through the eighth grade really “get” sustainability. I find it fascinating that, “each morning at the start of the school day, students and teachers gather together in Morning Gathering, an essential element of the school’s mission. Morning Gathering includes a variety of activities: children listen to stories and poems, sing songs, present short drama and dance skits and in other ways experience the richness and pleasure of family and community.”

At The Willow School, “Students are taught to think in whole systems, identify connections, ask big questions, recognize patterns and interactions taking place over time and appreciate complex, dynamic systems.” I think it’s impressive that they live and breathe sustainability every day.

And, what a great way to start one’s day – telling stories! It’s definitely worth considering.


Christopher Kogler About  Christopher Kogler

Covering the great breadth of the USA, Chris is based on the East Coast and brings his Emmy award winning film and television experience to help leaders find and tell their stories.

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