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Selling Sustainability? Start Here

April 18, 2014

Topics like Sustainability and Climate Change are understandably complicated, but not for the reasons you might expect.   Aside from the scientific, economic and political complexities, people are also often unsure about the pertinence of these topics to their own affairs.  We humans have a finite capacity for worry.  Most people are understandably preoccupied with near term personal, economic, family and daily situations.  If everyone’s Worry Bucket is always full, how do we make room to discuss climate uncertainties, let alone sell sustainability solutions?

The Toughest Sales Job Ever?

call rejectionIs it any wonder, then, that organizations promoting sustainability solutions frequently hit a wall with their audience?   Because of my client involvement, I get almost weekly calls from inside salesreps promoting sustainability solutions.  It frustrates me to hear enthusiastic salespeople routinely commit the same rookie mistake of failing to engage or even listen before presumptuously launching into a spiel.

I suspect the rejection rate and the job turnover are unacceptably high, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Indeed, I wish for their success!  I have helped a number of organizations improve their results in gaining mindshare and market traction.  Our combined experience, aided by the expertise of academic and scientific resources, has led us to conclude that the Sustainability conversation is in fact, er…sustainable.   Difficult conversations, begun well, have the potential to transform and win audiences, but if not begun carefully, they can actually backfire and alienate the audience, and the road back to engagement is arduous.  With so much at stake, we must begin well.

A Way Forward

We have condensed our findings into a series of free training modules, like the one embedded below.  It begins on the topic of  developing a deep understanding of your audience.  Deep understanding goes beyond simply determining whether a person or entity is ready to listen or buy, to discovering exactly what perspective each individual brings to the discussion.  

Make sustainability sustainable (preview) from Ed Alexander

Every graphic and image in this presentation is hyperlinked to its authoritative source so that, in addition to its face value as a training tool, it can also serve as a research guide. If you find it useful either way, you may wish to subscribe to this blog for future chapters and updates.

What unique challenges have you had to overcome in your efforts to engage audiences on sustainability, climate and product issues?  As always, I welcome your questions, comments and contributions. Cheers, Ed


EBSCO and Ipswich Leave Eco-Audience Green

January 18, 2013

You might think that a global publishing powerhouse like EBSCO, in choosing the tiny, tony, historic seaside community of Ipswich, Massachusetts as its home base, would need their headquarters examined.  In the case of EBSCO you’d be crazy wrong, because actually they’re crazy smart. Here’s how I found out.

EBSCO Publishing President Tim Collins

EBSCO Publishing President Tim Collins

At a recent North Shore Technology Council meeting, run by NSTC’s Sustainability SIG (that’s Special Interest Group, for you lay people), EBSCO CEO and founder Tim Collins and CFO Tom Wheeler spoke to an overflow crowd, all gathered for this rare opportunity (thanks, John Coulbourn) to be briefed on the back story on EBSCO’s widely reputed enviro-conscience.  The exec team regaled us with stories that brought us all to understand just how and why EBSCO is a darling of the digital publishing age, not to mention the Boston North Shore region and their host hometown.

A High-speed Fiber “Diet”

For openers, EBSCO is a case study in how a fiber optics buildout works wonders.  They engaged a telco provider to run high-speed fiber optic cable right to EBSCO’s century-old brick buildings that hug the meandering Ipswich River.  In so doing, they created a boon to the community, who also benefit from that high speed fiber optic Internet connectivity.

Talk about a good neighbor – but this is not a one-off; even EBSCO’s business model involves benefiting the community at large.  EBSCO Host, a leading document database, is free to the public, subsidized by leading university, hospital and corporate clients, who in turn benefit from recognition by a broad public audience.  Try it! (hint: click the logo below).

Sustainability at Work

EBSCO Host logoWhy did the NSTC Sustainability SIG seek to move its December 2012 monthly breakfast to EBSCO? In a word: reputation.  Aside from the convenient location for EBSCO’s executive team, consider the following.

The company has a sustainability streak that runs deep and wide.  LED lighting has replaced Sodium based lighting.  Climate controls are modern.  All EBSCO employees have free recycling bins in their office spaces and their homes, emblazoned with the EBSCO logo.  Imagine seeing the EBSCO logo on front lawns up and down Boston’s North Shore on your town’s Recycle day.  What a great community gift, and a nice nudge for PR and recruitment.

EBSCO has given away recyclable tote bags – 2 per employee at $1 apiece, exceeding $200 thousand over the years.  Incidentally, it came out of the Recruiting budget – once again a great PR and recruitment move, and a great morale booster and conservation act.

Best Commute: No Drive

EBSCO reimburses 75% of commuter rail passes for employees.  This started out of concern for inadequate parking spaces as the company grew, but the policy has been maintained since it is “greener” (less pollution per headcount) to ride the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) mass transit trains – not electric subway trains, mind you, but fully outfitted, locomotive-driven rail coach cars with cushy seats, wi-fi, and spectacular coastal views.  Additionally, it helps neutralize the commute cost issue for people who might have otherwise not considered Ipswich and opted for a dirty, noisy urban work destination.  Personally, I enjoy commuting by train from Boston to New York or northward. The ride is a perfect way to gear up for the day, sipping wi-fi and coffee, enjoying the mind-expanding scenic views, and to wind down on the return trip.

The subsidized train commute and inspired sustainability initiatives in place at EBSCO have proven financially worthwhile. EBSCO CFO Wheeler estimates that it is cheaper than the personnel turnover and agency fees that would otherwise occur if those incentives were not present. If you prefer to drive, though, note the electric car charging stations onsite.  EBSCO’s automobile fleet has swollen to over 50, almost all of which are hybrid fuel types in the U.S.

 Success Has Its Hiccups

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice a common motivational thread:  employee happiness.  Many of these “green” ideas are employee-devised and encouraged by the executive suite.   Of course, progress has its hiccups.  One trial of alternative cafeteria dining utensils made from organic ingredients resulted in a humorous mishap, in which an employee inserted one of the organic-base spoons in a cup of soup only to have it disintegrate in seconds.  It seems the spoon was made from, among other things, potato.  Not a bad soup enhancement, but also not a hot-selling coffee flavoring – at least, not in Ipswich.  Fear not; here come more success stories.

EBSCO campus

 Green Inside and Out

“Green Zone” labels adorn paper sources in EBSCO’s offices – a gentle and effective reminder to conserve paper.  Waste paper has gone way down.  Save a tree, save a buck.  Nice habit.

Outdoors, you’ll find even more conservation initiatives at work.  The EBSCO campus’ peaceful riverside dining terrace is punctuated with rain barrels that capture roof runoff to irrigate the luscious tableside gardens.  Speaking of water, all EBSCO employees are issued a mug and a cup to re-use, replacing the need for bottled water (FYI most water bottles worldwide tragically end up in the trash – not the recycle process).

 Raving Fans

NSTC logoThe audience of NSTC members and guests had quick praise and more than a handful of personal anecdotes acknowledging EBSCO and Ipswich.   NSTC member Vera Struck‘s cable TV show “Getting Engaged” has aired segments focused on what she observes is Ipswich’s “quest” for sustainability.  Fellow member David Reibel pointed out Ipswich’s “I Care” citizen’s group, which is focused on finding even more environmentally sound civic and business opportunities.   Martha Farmer of NSTC’s companion biotech/cleantech incubator organization North Shore Innoventures pointed out the link between environmental stewardship, clean air, and the attendant reduction in health care expense that can be enjoyed by a clean community like Ipswich.

Kind of makes you think about moving to Ipswich, doesn’t it?   You could do worse.  Besides, you look good in green.  Whoever you are.  Just saying.

Fix Earth? Fix Cities! Quick Win: Datacom

January 19, 2012

Boston's heat island image map

Boston’s urban “heat island”

In 2011, we reached two milestones, where (a) the Earth’s population topped 7 billion, and (b) over 50% of us are concentrated in densely populated, urban areas.  With an expected net increase to 9 billion worldwide by 2050, the expanding middle-class consumer group will likely steepen this urbanization trend.

Not too coincidentally, McKinsey Global Institute’s 2011 report titled “Resource Revolution“, which discusses ways to meet our world’s energy, materials, food and water needs, ranks 15 key opportunity areas, identifying “building energy efficiency” as the single biggest area of potential opportunity.  In short, fixing inefficient cities is a big potential win if we are to stem our planet’s fever and support our growing population.  McKinsey, too, cited the urbanization trend as an input.

In case you were wondering, the next 2 big opportunity areas identified by the McKinsey report are increasing agriculture yields and reducing food waste.  Taken together, these 3 areas comprise 75% of the total resource productivity opportunity identified in the McKinsey report.

Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) Firms Respond

The trends cited above have been closely watched by the “AEC” industries, and the response is encouraging.  You need only follow the industry groups to see how LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) construction is front and center, focused appropriately on energy efficiency and “zero carbon” construction.  Of course, most of the LEED construction announcements concern new buildings, since that’s easier and sexier that retrofitting existing buildings.  Still, if McKinsey et. al. are on target, fixing existing buildings presents the rest of the proverbial iceberg of this top-ranked resource opportunity.  Retrofitting existing buildings is a must; failure is not an option.  And it’s impractical to rip and replace entire cities wholesale, or build new ones and abandon the old.

One Quick Win: Telecom / Datacom energy

networking closet thermal image

a telecom closet’s thermal image

You could start on the subject of building energy efficiency by discussing better insulation, better windows, better HVAC, better building materials, or solar panels, but why not start with the fastest growing, grandma-sized wedge of the US energy consumption pie chart: data centers and their customers?  Google, Amazon, and their midstream kin are all working hard at improving their efficiency, including funding solar arrays to power their server farms.  Hooray for them!  Meanwhile, what about all those seething, energy-hogging, city office buildings and multi-tenant dwellings?

Here’s a ray of hope.  While attending a recent BuildBoston Expo to visit some  customers, I came across a curious sight: a sole telecom outfitter named CommLink Services, whose show booth displayed a sort of before/after scenario, in which a standard office building’s data communications “hot closet” stood humming, blinking and throwing off gobs of BTUs of heat and hundreds of pounds of blue Ethernet cabling.  Alongside that familiar-looking steel closet rack with all its blinking metallic pizza boxes, they displayed a contrasting suitcase-sized rugged plastic box that mounts easily on a wall, with fiber optic cables emanating from it- sleek, quiet, cool and small.  Impressive.

In a typical office building, you can expect at least one “hot closet” for each tenant business, and additional hot closets for each 100 datacom users (PCs, phones, etc.) per tenant business.  Add more closets every 250 linear blue-cable feet to house the repeaters and other equipment to refresh the data signals that decay over long trips via copper lines, and you will have consumed significant heating, cooling, electricity, carbon, system weight, building reinforcement, closet space, and ceiling crawl space – all to feed our insatiable need for datacom speed.  Look at any office park from above, and you can plainly see all the heavy, energy-hogging HVAC equipment perched atop – half of it devoted to cooling your datacom infrastructure.  It’s a perverse problem, hiding in plain sight.  When I discussed this in a classroom of post-millennials, one little girl summed it up: “Isn’t it kind of dumb – – to heat a closet, and then cool it?” In fairness, we’ve only recently developed the optical componentry to solve it.

Fiber to the end-user Node (FTTN)

If you have at least 100 users and nodes in your data network, and you value data security, the Passive Optical Network option can offer improved datacom performance, while consuming far fewer resources and saving significant dollars.  This is a quick win, hiding in plain sight.  If you are a CIO, a multi-tenant commercial property owner, a building architect, or a telecom / datacom firm, this single “resource revolution” opportunity should have you drooling.

Compare options: Copper, Wireless, Optical

This “Fiber to the Node” (FTTN) opportunity looms large.  If you’d like to weigh the relative merits of copper LAN, fiber and wireless options, here is a comparison chart.

Hats off to Steve Welch and the forward-thinking folks at CommLink Services Corporation for taking it to the streets at BuildBoston and showing people the sustainability, energy efficiency, and bottom line advantages of the Passive Optical LAN (POLAN) option.  They’ve been in the datacom game for over 25 years, with some significant large and small-scale projects in the portfolio, and Steve says they have been inking significant VAR and distributor partnerships with all the major equipment firms who have come to recognize CommLink’s reliability and expertise. My take: CommLink Services knows they have been quietly successful too long. They are a mouse about to roar.  Give them a shout!

Are You an Energy Sage?

December 7, 2011

If you were fortunate to attend the December 7, 2011 North Shore Technology Council’s Sustainability Forum, you saw a fascinating presentation by EnergySage, a very cool new online portal for learning, evaluating and pricing alt-energy for your business or domicile.

As a homeowner and parent of two young adult sons, one currently a Computer Science major and the other a recent MS Physics grad, I have become accustomed to healthy skepticism.   When we discuss business, economics, energy, dating, etc., they continually ask: whose axe is being ground? Whose ox is being gored? Their “ax/ox” questions keep me on my toes.  I am thus well trained.  And I brought that to the meeting.   Having been involved in some successful startups, I think that thinking like an investor is good discipline.

That said, I thought I’d pass along some of my reactions from today’s meeting.

The Good

First off, here’s what I liked.

I liked the clarity with which today’s presenter , founder Vikram Aggarwal, described alt energy as a new asset class opportunity for property owners.   The case for heightening awareness, convincing homeowners of alt energy’s sound financial sense, and simplifying the purchase process, all became very clear.  EnergySage is to be applauded for their superb effort at meeting a very complex set of needs for a broad audience.  Which got me thinking about…

The Questions

Having read McKinsey’s November 2011 report on resource opportunities and Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), and blogged about it here, and having faced skeptical investors,   I felt the ox/ax factors weighing in.  Are all salient market aspects thoroughly vetted?  How viable is the market opportunity?  Who are we selling to?   Who are we leaving out?  Which got me thinking about…

Macro Trends and Opportunities in Housing & Tech

So, what about macro trends? For starters, it’s not just about life in the ‘burbs.  Household solar may be disrupted by other trends which weigh more heavily in the global energy balance.  Of course, any existing structures could benefit from energy efficiency improvements, but is that opportunity window expanding, shrinking, or stable? Consider:

  • New construction trends are persistently relatively flat, as mortgagors default and young adults either boomerang home or flock to cities and jobs.
  • By 2030, there will be 3 billion (with a B) more middle-class consumers.
  • Resource and commodity competition will intensify nearly 150%, further inflating prices – especially for land, water and steel.
  • The World Economic Forum reports that we just passed the tipping point this year, where 50% of all the earth is urbanized, and that trend is accelerating.

Taken together, these signals suggest that the iconic “American Dream” – at least the home ownership part – may have just ended, simply because today’s young adults understandably shun the extravagance of heating, cooling and lighting 2,000 square feet of detached homestead for 2 to 4 people.  They are smart, mobile and mobilized, flocking to cities out of pure economic sense.  Our cities are becoming smarter and, frankly, fun.

The real energy benefits, then, are in retrofitting city building envelopes, improving the alternative energy buildouts in urban centers, replacing copper with passive optical fiber and antennae, etc.  Those are the big wins.  Fund that, Congress.   On second thought…

Your Own Private Stonehenge?

If grid solar eclipses residential solar, years from now archaeologists may well wonder what we were thinking.   Solar panels on a fundamentally inefficient detached suburban household roof are, by definition, an isolated solution.  House rooftop solar serves mainly the narrow self interests of the residential bill-payer.  It could be made more broadly cost effective if it is subsidized (a false economy), but it does little to solve our seething, problematic, collectively used fossil fuel burning national electric  energy grids.  In other words, unless your own household math is too compelling to ignore (try it, though!), putting solar panels on a house could be like patching a pothole in a dead end street while the main arteries crumble.  To fix those arteries (the Grid), you need solar arrays by the acre.  Fortunately, they are being built.  Brownfields, office parks…all the top siting ideas are either on the table, in the works, or already quietly online (maybe too quiet!).  Spot-mark them on Google Earth, and you’ll be looking at a virtual pincushion.  The question lingers:  Will Grid solar “eclipse” the market for residential?   Who has that answer? Holla back!

A Plug for Organic Solar

And let’s not forget the aesthetically attractive alternatives, like oh, say… organic solar paint. That’s right, paint. Using green chemistry to blend organic photovoltaic compounds into just about any outer coating, the actual shingles on our roofs could be the circuit someday soon.  Recent efficiency leaps are bringing it closer to everyday practicality.  For details, visit the local Nobel laureates at Konarka.

Entering the Grid Parity Zone

Fortunately, we are nearing the solar gid parity “zone”, where by mid-decade solar energy will be broadly cheaper than fossil grid energy.  As solar technology improves, though, it improves the math for both residential solar panel installations and for grid-feeding solar array “farms”.  So, again, the question is:  will grid solar obviate residential solar?

Currently, only about 4 world regions (Spain, Japan, California, Mexico) are in that Solar Grid Parity Zone, principally because of the cost per KwH of grid-based power.  Above the Mason/Dixon line, geothermal and wind power seem generally viable (check it out) – and both technologies continue to improve.

Last Word on Real Estate

NSTC meeting attendees heard an anecdote about how new homes with alt energy installations sell faster and at higher prices than other homes in the same development tract.  Not to be too much of a wet blanket here, but note, however, that this is a statistically small, anecdotal sample – uplifting and instructive, yes, but still.   Okay, so how’s that macro home sales market doing?  Oh, yeah.  Even those new alt energy homes are selling at deflated prices in this market, whose inventory is projected to take 20 years to churn through, by which time many of us will have moved on, demographically speaking.

Energy, schmenergy

Buyers want low prices.   I wish this weren’t true but, as altruistically and fatalistically compelling as the “green” argument may be, it’s about cash.  The good folks at Ogilvy Earth, who on behalf of the world’s biggest consumer product companies exhaustively studied how to communicate effectively about “green” products, have concluded that the “green” message fails…but they offer solutions, too, so study the learnings from Ogilvy and from Columbia University.  You’ll know whether you need that info if you find yourself struggling to convince the owner of a 401(k)  (make that 2o1(k)) about energy as an asset class.   Where will that money come from?  Speaking on behalf of today’s typical household, at a time when the average household disposable income after essentials has declined to under $10K,  an up-front investment upwards of $3K in energy efficiency is about as likely as a new pool.  To paraphrase the J. Geils Band’s frontman Peter Wolf:  “First I look at the purse”.  Alt energy as a new asset class looks attractive, but to the skeptical, indebted homeowner, it is like those 401(k) assets that were once deemed rock solid.  Boing.

Getting the Flywheels Turning

Improved resources utilization, price-driven markets, and other macro trends will help us learn how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Keeping the earth’s temperature increase under 2 degrees Celsius, improving infrastructure, and funding basic research into solutions that show the greatest promise, are just 3 flywheels that need to turn faster.  Fortunately, the pace of innovation is good.  Even I, the surly adopter, am encouraged.

Anything else is like patching a pothole on a dead end street: nice, but not as important and possibly irrelevant.

But, in the end, I am speaking in generalities.   Your own residential results may vary, so visit the good folks at Energy Sage.  You just may be in for a pleasant shock.  I hope so!

Additional Resources

Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food and water needs (McKinsey, 2011)

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) (Columbia University)

Solar Grid Parity: Are You in the Zone? (SocialClimate)

Environmentally Benign Products:  A Green Chemistry Mentor Speaks (SocialClimate)

Solar Grid Parity – Are You in the Zone?

November 10, 2011

According to recent scientific and economic reports, Solar (a.k.a. Photovoltaic, or “light-electricity”) power is nearing a point at which it is equal or less in cost than power supplied by the world’s electric grids.  Surprised?

Someday soon, your utility bill for power from coal-fired power plant operators could be higher than the cost of solar power, and your pocketbook will say: “Go solar”.  Or, your utility will just handle it for you.  Or both.  Depending on where you live, that tipping point has already come to pass. For others of us it remains impractical, and geothermal looks more viable.  What’s it like where you live?   Find out in this article.


At a recent meeting of the North Shore Technology Council, Dr. Paul Sullivan, Ph.D., a Vice President at Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates, presented some compelling evidence that solar grid parity is imminent for more and more world regions.   Here are some highlights of his well-researched, thoroughly informative talk.

The Practicalities of Solar

What factors make Solar attractive? What drawbacks prevent its widespread adoption? Solar power is attractive because of factors like:

  • Lifetime value – current PV installations have surpassed their expected useful life of 30 years
  • Passive – once installed, solar requires minimal costly human intervention
  • Modular – solar power systems can be built to suit a broad variety of situations
  • Fuel-efficient – solar requires no fossil fuel or water to operate
  • Environmentally low-impact – except for the solar cell chips that use expensive silicon
  • Low noise – no machinery means no noise pollution
  • Mechanically efficient – this improves on solar’s innate low efficiency and makes it viable
  • No emissions – solar power generation is essentially pollution-free

Solar is not without challenges, though, which chiefly include:

  • Light dependency – the amount of sunlight that reaches the PV installation, affected by latitude, weather, climate, geography, topography, vegetation, etc.
  • Storage – off-grid and night-time power require some sort of power storage
  • Startup cost – subsidies are necessary these days to make payoff a near term reality; they exist in the form of cheap loans, tax breaks, and feed-in tariffs (FITs)
  • Space & site – a large surface is needed to produce useful power; site factors like angles and shading also affect efficiency.  Large solar farms are more efficient than rooftop installations
  • Conversion loss – converting Solar from Direct Current (DC) to AC to make it useful for everyday consumption is a key cause of solar power leakage, loss and inefficiency

Entering the Grid Parity Zone

All the pro and con factors described above, fed into calculations, indicate that certain world regions are already in the Grid Parity “zone”, where the cost of Solar power is cheaper than electric grid power, in places like California, Hawaii, Spain and Japan.  Wikipedia defines Grid Parity as the generated cost of power using lowest-cost alternatives versus the currently dominant electic power grid.   In these strict financial terms, those world regions have arrived at Grid Parity.

Three Big Financial Factors

Currently, the initial startup cost of residential solar power installation is dauntingly high for most private citizens.   In recent years, disposable income has hovered at around the $10,000 USD mark.  It would be tough to convince any family to forgo vacation, entertainment, leisure and other expenses and sink it all into solar panels – no matter how sensible it may be in the long term.   A fortunate ray of hope on the affordability front is that as PV becomes more efficient and cost-effective, certain economies of scale kick in and accelerate its affordability.   The three largest looming factors are:

Solar Cell Efficiency.   The efficiency of the performance of each individual solar cell is the single biggest factor; it affects the rest of the value chain.   Advancements in solar cell R&D continue to improve the efficiency factor.

Thinner Wafers – the “chips” upon which solar cells are implanted are made of expensive Silicon.   Reducing silicon consumption reduces chip cost.

Experience Curve – increasing production results in economies of scale.   As a rule, each doubling of cumulative sold PV power installations reduces prices by over 20%.

What Next?

From a global perspective, there is no true market driven dynamic for the solar power industry.   Fragmentation is the norm, driven by subsidies and the whims of politics.   A viable solar power industry with true grid parity requires solar cells whose cost per megawatt hour eclipses traditional energy sources.  Thanks to recent technology and economic developments, we are nearing a point in the current decade where solar power is becoming a more universally practical and affordable power generation alternative.

Welcome to the zone of Universal Grid Parity.   Don’t you just love a sunny day?

Additional resources

Buongiorno, solar parity! (SmarterPlanet)

Group Purchasing Gets Solar to Grid Parity in Los Angeles  (ThinkProgress)

Make Sustainability Sustainable

August 10, 2011

On The Psychology of Climate Change Communication

How many of us have come away emotionally charged after hearing a dynamic speaker convince us of the urgency to take action like, oh, say … changing our behavior, our society, or our business environment to foster a more sustainable Earth?   Why do you suppose that enthusiasm dissipates shortly thereafter, and audiences often don’t make sustained progress toward that much-needed change that so fleetingly fired their imaginations?

Understanding how audiences – as individuals and as groups – use frames of reference as filters can go a long way toward achieving lasting results.  Where can we learn to recognize and mitigate those and other audience behavior effects?   Here I will speak briefly about personal success, then  recommend some resources.

I’ave had a modicum of success in public speaking to audiences of all sizes as a long-time member of Toastmasters International with a list of awards and credits,  and I have come to witness firsthand that the key ingredient to changing human behavior, including adoption of crucial sustainability initiatives, is, quite frankly, effective communication.  The operative word “effective” is the subject of this post.

Sustainability Profession Concurs

If you agree, we are in good company.  The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), in a 2010 survey covering thousands of Sustainability professionals who were asked to identify career success ingredients, ranks “Communication Skills” as the top skill requirement, reportedly 4 times more important than any particular domain expertise or technical education.

Other responses in the survey point to the importance of communication skills in attaining some top priorities, cited here in top-down order:

  • gain top management buy-in
  • build a business case
  • educate customers and clients
  • overcome internal resistance to change
  • get support from employees (or any audience, for that matter)

Interestingly, these 5 other important factors hinge on…you guessed it…communication skills.

The Best Resources I Know

Short of recommending that everyone in the Sustainability profession join a local Toastmasters club – although it’s not a bad idea – I began lately casting about for some good instructional materials that could serve as a rubric for communicating effectively for driving lasting behavioral change at all levels and in all situations – boardroom, boiler room, borough, backyard.  I try to speak as often as possible about sustainability matters, and this topic is a particularly thorny one; its complications extend beyond mere communication skills, to include addressing audience sensitivities and more.

Get Some “CRED”

It took some time and searching, but I think I’ve hit on something, and it’s working for me.    Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (C.R.E.D.), in concert with the National Science Foundation, the Harmony Institue, and the Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami, have conducted an extensive series of research activities, culminating in publication of an impressive array of books, reports and other materials all aimed at helping scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and the interested public learn to communicate more effectively about Climate Change.

If I had to pick any one particular publication as mandatory reading for anyone with a Sustainability agenda but tired of the hand-wringing experience of lackluster audience results, I’d suggest their publication titled “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication“.

Highlights of the Report –  a sneak peek

This report is professionally written, edited and illustrated.  Deceptively effective in its easy-to-read format and two-tone, simplistic graphics, the report seems to touch all the bases I’d cover if I were delivering a crash course on persuasive speaking.   Here is a look at the table of contents.:

  • Know your Audience – confirming and changing audience mental models, overcoming confirmation bias
  • Get the Audience’s Attention – framing the message, choosing and combining frameworks to effectively relate your message
  • Translate scientific data into concrete experience – how the brain processes information, speaking to both lobes, getting more “street” with your language and vocabulary, understanding sensationalism
  • Avoid overuse of emotional appeals – avoiding numbing an audience (different from boredom), counteracting single action bias
  • Address scientific and climate uncertainties – acknowledging and defusing uncertainties, precautionary principles, group learning process experiments
  • Tap into Social Identities and Affiliations – the Tragedy of the Commons, experiments on group affiliation and cooperation
  • Encourage Group Participation – understand the many ways people participate in groups – overtly and tacitly,  learn how to set the stage for effective group discussions
  • Make Behavior Change Easier – understand default effect on decision making, optimize the default option, provide near-term incentives, etc.

This is a FREE report, available online.  Get it today, and get started on improving your climate change and sustainability communications chops today.   Take it from a veteran Toastmaster: your audience response will improve.  Anyone who has made a presentation appreciates that it is a sin to waste 10 minutes of one person’s time, and if you multiply that by your audience size, you could be wasting hours or days if you’re not effective.  This 50-page plainspoken book will help you become more effective, fast.

Environmentally Benign Products: a Green Chemistry Mentor Speaks

July 27, 2011

Tags:  Warner Babcock Institute, Beyond Benign Foundation, John Warner, Ph.D. 

It is not unusual to find a chemical, pharma, or other manufacturing company that spends almost as much on environmental and regulatory compliance as it does on making its products.   Think of it: the typical company, in producing an  environmentally harmful product, willingly saddles itself with a greatly increased total cost of doing business.  They pay to mitigate, dispose, transport, handle, manage, and bring production facilities and products into regulatory compliance.  And the end product remains a real or potential hazard.

Imagine this alternative:   Your organization designs an environmentally benign product using non-hazardous processes and ingredients. Your product easily complies with regs, and has a neutral or beneficial environmental impact.   In saving money on producing it, you can price it lower and still have a healthy profit margin.  You enjoy competitive advantage, customer loyalty, and a cleaner, safer planet.

This might seem like a pipe dream, and indeed it represents a departure from current practice in many cases, but is it possible?  In a word: yes.   This article will cite a few examples later, but first, let’s ask: how far upstream does this problem exist?  What are the symptoms?  The solutions?  Let’s just take academia, for starters.  Consider that until recent years, virtually none of the U.S.’ prominent chemical degree granting colleges made any effort to include “Green” chemistry in the curriculum.  If you wanted to become a chemist, you simply accepted that you’d be creating harmful products for a living.   Even under strict safety conditions, you expected you’d expose yourself to new and unknown chemical hazards – without a standard definition of what makes a chemical toxic.  Thanks to the Warner Babcock Institute, that is all changing.  More about them shortly.  

The U.S. Plays Catch-up

Oh, and if you’re concerned about China and other developing nations becoming bigger polluters, relax.  It’s not them, it’s us.  In terms of sustainability practice, China is way ahead of developed nations like the US.   Their regulatory, educational and business practice infrastructure are, comparatively speaking, Green from the get-go.

An Expert Weighs In

At a July 27, 2011 Sustainability forum meeting of the North Shore Technology Council, featured speaker Dr. John Warner, President and CTO of Warner Babcock Institute  (WBI), spoke of his organization’s progress in helping businesses reduce and eliminate environmental hazards at the R&D stage, and helping academia transform their chemical engineering programs to include Green chemistry precepts.  The results thus far: according to several college sources, including UC Berkeley, virtually every ChemE with a Green chemistry background has to fend off competing job offers – in arguably the toughest job market in nearly a century.  American business is waking up, thankfully.  Speaking of American business, read “Success Stories” below.

Dr. Warner, one of the founders of the field of Green chemistry and co-author of the definitive text “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice“, went on to note that the US lags in several key areas.   In paraphrasing the words of the US EPA‘s directorate, he observed that US regulation ironically focuses more on telling industry what not to do, and less on what to do. Dr. Warner’s Warner Babcock Institute, and the work of the Institute’s Beyond Benign Foundation, aim to reverse that – and they’re making great progress.    Meanwhile, across town in our nation’s capitol,  a bill co-authored by Dr. Warner, HR 2850: Green Chemistry R&D Act of 2007, while currently stalled in Congress, is up for re-submittal.

The Business Case

What is the scope of the opportunity?  According to Dr. Warner, the business case for Green chemistry goes like this.   WBI estimates that of all the products and processes in existence, roughly 10% are benign in nature, i.e. they neither employ nor produce environmentally harmful outputs.   Another 25% of current products and processes could be made benign relatively easily.   The remaining 65% of products and processes have no benign alternatives.  These numbers illustrate the scope of the opportunity.  Eighty percent of products and processes today are excessive in cost, once you factor in the compliance, remediation, disposal, management and environmental compliance expense. Eliminate or reduce those hazards in your product ingredients and processes, and you drop the cost of compliance, risk management, environmental mediation and health impacts.

Regulatory Policy’s Unintended Consequences

Dr. Warner illustrated the irony of compliance and policy as societal inputs with unintended consequences, citing the example of a recent Washington State regulation prohibiting the use of fire extinguishers containing a certain banned chemical.   Ironically, sale of fire extinguishers containing that banned chemical soared after the regulation was instituted, simply because the regulation provided that such toxic products could be permissible if they could be proven as the best available alternative.   Clearly, this is a supply problem, not a demand problem.  There is plenty of demand for fire extinguishers, but the supply of benign alternatives is nil, facilitating “loophole” compliance for the hazardous alternative simply because it has proven to be the best available alternative.

Success Stories

Fortunately, re-jiggering an industrial R&D lab is not expensive, but it does take focused effort.   Among some of the product alternatives already developed or co-developed by WBI and currently finding their way into the marketplace:

  • ultra low-cost non-toxic solar power generation equipment
  • non-toxic environmentally benign hair coloring products
  • water-based non-toxic photoresist cleaning solutions (used in semiconductor manufacturing)

…and more.  For a technology to be considered Green Chemistry, WBI says it must accomplish three things:

  • it must be more environmentally benign than existing alternatives
  • it must be more economically viable than existing alternatives
  • it must be functionally equivalent or outperform existing alternatives

Getting Started

Think: What does it cost you to invent, make, sell, service your products, and comply with governmental regulation? What costs can you save by doing the basic and applied research using Green methods to research, develop and produce environmentally benign products?  If you’re unsure how to get started, contact the experts at Warner Babcock Institute.  Whatever the size of your market opportunity, this call is worth the dime.

Make Sustainability a Habit

July 1, 2011

Awesome resource links at the end!

If changing human behavior were easy, we’d have a carbon neutral global society, body mass indexes within normal range, and financial resilience.  We’d have wealth, good looks and a sustainable earth.

But, generally, we don’t.  Why?

The answers are many but, for starters, let’s look at the success factors behind change and how they impact our striving for personal, career, company, societal and Sustainability goals.  I’m speaking of the concept of Feedback Loops, also known sometimes as Virtuous Cycles.  Each of us is a system, nested within other systems (family, company, society, etc.). Each of these systems is comprised of multiple interacting feedback loops.  Feedback Loops work when they are fundamentally intact and well maintained.  They don’t when they aren’t.  But they can be fixed if you understand where and how they need fixing.

The Eco-consumer’s Broken Feedback Loop

Presently, the typical feedback loop of consumer thinking is: “The economy is shaky, it’s not a good time to invest in unproven enviro-alternatives, I may be okay anyway, the government’s taxation stance is fickle from year to year, and I’m just one person, so I’ll wait until I have more clear direction or can find a shining example to follow, or feel enough pain to motivate me to adapt”.

In other words, although the message is clear and it’s rather widely known that by mid-century we’ll require the equivalent of three Earths’ resources to sustain our projected 7-billion person world society, we nonetheless short-circuit our feedback loop thinking with short-term, emotional, pocketbook-level rationalizations. The predictable outcome: inadequate results, slippage, and in some views, looming catastrophe.  This is not a virtuous cycle, to say the least.

What a Well Tuned Feedback Loop Looks Like

Let’s look at the elements of a successful, intact feedback loop.  You can apply it to any situation to learn where there are leaks or breaks, make repairs, and improve results.

  1. Evidence. Measure the behavior you want to change. Sounds simple, right? But how do you know you’re measuring the right thing? Are you measuring CO2/KWH? Gallons H2O per capita? Calories burned? What?  Measure the right thing – constantly over time.
  2. Relevance. Interpret the data and give it meaning. Just knowing I can measure my carbon footprint isn’t enough.  I have to know how I rank relative to either my own pocketbook goal, or some trendline, or some legal standard, or other interpretation. Fortunately, the price of measuring just about anything is dropping to levels where we can cheaply and easily get good data.  Ask anyone who owns an iPhone, Nike shoes, or GPS.   Chances are there are free and commercially available measurement and interpreting solutions out there already, no matter what you’re seeking to measure and interpret.
  3. Consequence. Fit the meaningful data into a larger goal or purpose to properly motivate action. Let’s say I want to consume energy at some rate below the per capita average, and I get to enjoy the positive consequences in terms of pocketbook savings, energy independence, and other worthwhile consequences in which I am emotionally invested. Help me measure it, interpret it, change my behavior, celebrate success, track corrective action, and celebrate that improvement.
  4. Action.  Empower people to act on their new-found motivation, stimulating the creation of new data. Measure and appreciate behavioral improvement to stimulate habit formation.  It can take up to 2o instances of measured improvement for a habit to become ingrained in an average adult (half that number for younger people), so keep at it.  After a month of measuring anything daily, even with the occasional skipped day, you’ll be there.

To accelerate a habit, though, it helps to socialize it among your close contacts.   Remember, too, that people buy pleasure, not prevention.  This has implications for how you talk to yourself about it.

We cannot rely on the best brains and systems thinking to tune our personal feedback loops critical to personal, business environmental sustainability.  It’s an inside job.  It is up to each of us to get started.  I hope this post helps you get started.

Marketing Green Products: Customers Weigh In

June 10, 2011

What comes to mind when you hear the “green” message in a product pitch – aside from the altruistic impression?    Don’t you also occasionally worry if there will be trade-offs in terms of product effectiveness, price, convenience, performance, or all the other usual reasons we tend to prefer one product over a competing product?   Consumers are understandably skeptical after experiencing the false-economy hypocrisy of:  

  • low-flow toilets that require additional flushes, negating water savings
  • compact flourescent (cf) bulbs that deliver suboptimal light and, if broken, expose you to mercury
  • low-flow shower heads that require longer showers to rinse shampoo away
  • energy-conserving clothes dryers that require longer cycles to actually dry clothes
  • smaller water bottle caps (70% of water bottles never get recycled)

For antidotes, visit

Lessons from the Auto Industry

Folks in the auto industry get this.   They readily admit that hybrid and electric vehicles are currently too expensive to compete with internal combustion autos.  They know price is a looming issue in buying decisions.  Big dollars are at stake here, and the sticking point is the cost of lithium batteries.  When the production of lithium batteries increases in volume, then the price can then drop to more reasonable ranges.  The auto industry is now focusing on ways to reduce the cost of those batteries.  They are facing the problem head-on.  Independent researchers, too, are making geat progress.

Every day we hear about “green” products that aren’t catching on.  What are all these “green” product messages doing wrong – or more politely, what could we be doing better?  Are we ignoring customer concerns?

Madison Avenue Does Our Homework

The good people at venerable NYC media agency Ogilvy Earth have taken on the task of surveying thousands of consumers to determine how Ogilvy’s clients – which include many major brands – could do a more effective job of selling “green” products.   They’ve even generously made the information available to us all.   Thanks, OE!

Here are some findings, paraphrased from their study.   These results are summarized from actual surveys of thousands of people, proving that public perception is everything; no matter how far it may seem from the truth, it’s the elephant in the living room that must be addressed.  We could whistle along hoping people buy because of our altruistic “green” message, but we all know hope is not a strategy.   You cannot succeed by ignoring objections.   So, let’s examine the objections,  OE’s findings, and the implications for us all.

What’s Wrong with Green Marketing Today

According to the survey respondents, Green Marketing fails to close the “green” gap, instead cementing it by making Green behavior seem too difficult and costly from a practical, financial and social standpoint.   Green behavior is also often perceived as a combination of elitist, feminine and hippie.

According to the survey responses, consumers would rather buy from a trusted, familiar brand name than from a seemingly specialized, so-called “green” manufacturer.  Put simply: given the choice, most people would rather fit in than stand out.

Green Marketing’s New Marching Orders

Here, at a high level, are Ogilvy Earth’s recommendations:

  • Resist the urge to make Green feel cool or different
  • Position Green products as normal purchases
  • Eliminate Green product price barriers any way possible
  • Make Green products more male-friendly (!)
  • Ditch the altruistic Green marketing message
  • Appeal to consumers’ enjoyment of the product
So, it would appear Green marketing is the wrong emphasis.  We should first compete on the usual bases – of price, effectiveness, and convenience.   Green benefits, as important as they are, should be positioned as additional differentiators, but not the focal point of the marketing message.
 There is much more to learn from the Ogilvy Earth green marketing study, so check it out when you have a chance, and if you find that the information saves you from expensive marketing mis-steps, say thanks!

ISO 31000 for Risk Management

May 17, 2011

A Compass Beats a Map Any Day

A few years ago, while working in marketing and sales at global risk management software leader Cura Software, I had the transformative experience of supporting a group of visionary thought leaders on the subject of global risk and opportunity management by helping publicize and promote the adoption of ISO 31000 as the global standard for risk and opportunity management.

By thought leaders, I mean real leaders  – people actually making a difference in how the world perceives and effectively manages the risks and opportunities of business, social responsibility and environmental stewardship.

Two years later, it is gratifying to see the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has adopted ISO 31000, considered the “gold standard” of principles and standards in risk and opportunity management.

Purchase and study a copy of this terse, plainspoken, 30-odd page booklet (or search for a free, outdated draft online), and I think you’ll agree that ISO 31000 represents a singular opportunity to place a compass in the hand of everyone with best intentions of achieving a safer, more stable environment for business, society and humanity.

Like all worthwhile efforts, achieving global sustainability by mid-century will require work, but in a world where vendors sometimes offer biased maps with themselves at the center, it is advisable to have a compass.

The ISO 31000 standard is available for purchase from ANSI for around $110 USD.  Get it!

Further reading

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