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Can we ignore the sustainability naysayers?



However much we think sustainability should be something we all embrace, we are confronted by an all too familiar reality: that of having to deal with the sustainability sceptic.

These people have a right to voice critical concerns, and we sustainability people have our right to challenge positively and seek to persuade them about the current (and future realities) of ignoring the challenges at hand.

The dangers of not seeking to win them over can be huge. So we need our voice and we need to provide accurate, clear and persuasive positions that can be robustly defended.

Why are they sceptical? Maybe it’s because they have been promised outcomes that were never delivered, or based on their unclear understanding of what it is, or a perception that the sustainability agenda has suffered overkill, has been given too much attention in the past or is an idea that simply doesn’t sit with the person’s ideological beliefs.

We could argue that we can ignore these people, yet they often have significant influence or hold senior positions, responsible for enabling or torpedoing sustainability initiatives crucial for delivering significant change.

Recognising that we aren’t all converts, supporters or champions is an important starting point. Sustainability professionals must be aware and able to respond to this. The approaches we take must be ready and appropriate for the cultures, circumstances and personalities that make our lives more challenging and also more interesting.

As with climate change, there can be fundamental beliefs that apparently defy logic (and science). Seemingly no amount of evidence will change such minds. But it may not be evidence we need.

It could be that we create sufficient agreement and support around them to the point where they no longer feel conformable maintaining a position at odds with the communities within which they work (or live).

Sustainability is, albeit slowly, becoming more mainstream. Within businesses, the proof that sustainability delivers real value is becoming stronger and more relevant in every area of company operations, including the products and services sold. A begrudging acceptance may be all that is needed where pride may be swallowed and for the ‘barriers’ to move forward.

In many cases, as I have written previously, the lack of clear understanding of what sustainability truly means and the systemic consequences of our actions is widespread.

Sustainability has, in many cases, been argued from a vague philosophical perspective. Yet it doesn’t have to be. We can base our arguments in science and in the laws of nature (such as the laws of thermodynamics) which can only be argued against by illustrating complete irrational thought.

Alternatively, we can look to find ways where these blockers can learn in their own terms. Their work, lives and relationships can provide the context for them to consider, internalise, reflect and act in ways they feel become comfortable rather than alien to them. Finding ways that don’t nag or force, rather enable learning, exploration and then ownership of the issue, will be important.

Giving recognition for actions undertaking, and enabling them to realise the wider benefits of their behaviours to themselves and the wider world will help reinforce behaviours and can turn sceptics into advocates.

Sometimes we have to save our energy and avoid banging our heads against such people. We are too few in number and our capabilities are better used elsewhere to motivate and enable others, and outflank those that undermine the sustainability agenda. We need to communicate sustainability in ways that are easy to understand and for others to reinterpret accurately and in their own terms.

In some cases, we need to drop the terms ‘sustainability’, ‘green’, ‘eco’ and ‘ethical’ and use stealth tactics, applying ‘strategy’, ‘efficiency’, ‘innovation’ and ‘staff performance’ as our outcomes, delivered through business management approaches that if scratched below the surface would have sustainability as the glue that holds them all together.

We need to be present, constantly aware of the context we are in and the actors that we relate to. We need to empathise, prompt, enable, challenge, reward, coach, support, mentor, motivate, educate and score more ways to ensure those that may stop us in our tracks become those that can help us along the path.

Our roles are to move everyone forward to create the societies that are for all and forever. Yes, there may still be a few people that are more interested in all for themselves, forever. Yet these will increasingly become marginalised, left behind as the world moves forward to create something that only those who participate responsibly will feel the power of the good that they have done.

Simon Goldsmith has worked in the sustainability arena for the past 20 years, working in many sectors from campaigning for environmental NGOs, to reducing the impacts of multinational oil and gas companies. He has master’s degrees in both in sustainability leadership and environmental policy and works to help create innovative local solutions and lever ideas for transformational sustainability change. He is currently head of sustainability at the University of Greenwich, helping co-create and deliver their sustainability ambitions and visions throughout the organisation and beyond.

Further reading:

Success means seeing ourselves as part of the bigger system

Sustainability isn’t about being fluffy; it’s about being strategic

We need more people with complete sustainability literacy

Charities keeping quiet about sustainability is pretty dumb in the long-term