Sustainability has a big problem

Sustainability has a big problem. On the last day of the Oregon MBAs’ trip to Seattle, the Center for Sustainable Business practices broke off from the rest of our peers and went to Edelman Consulting, a public relations firm in the shadow of the Space Needle. There we listened to Josh Chaitin of Edelman Consulting and Kevin Wilhelm of Sustainable Business Consulting speak to a group of public relations professionals about the challenges sustainability faces and their strategies for “making sustainability stick.” We could tell that everyone in the room had experience in the field of sustainability by the collective nods when Mr. Wilhelm and Mr. Chaitin started talking about lack of institutional buy-in and engagement failures. Similar challenges and failures were written on faces around the room in wry smiles and frowning nods.

Behind all that frustration is our collective conclusion that sustainability is a fundamentally good value system. Sure, money may make the world go ‘round, but if we do not make said money in a sustainable way, we’re going to bring ruin down on the future of our world. Climate change, biodiversity collapse, ocean acidification, freshwater poisoning, the list of our current environmental problems is long and terrifying. At its heart, sustainability exists to prevent this destruction.

Here at the University of Oregon’s Center for Sustainable Business Practices, we learn how to make the business case for sustainability. Give us some numbers and we’ll analyze payback periods, supply-chain cost reductions, and maybe even check some boxes for your Global Reporting Initiatives report. But while these are valuable tools and are hard skills that can improve business, Mr. Wilhelm and Mr. Chaitin agreed that they don’t solve sustainability’s real problem.

Marketing. Which, if you haven’t deduced by now, is sustainability’s big problem. Mr. Wilhelm’s excellent book Making Sustainability Stick is an excellent and comprehensive how-to guide for practitioners. His principles and steps for aligning marketing message with a sustainable purpose should be a must read for anyone working in business period. Mr. Chaitin held up Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, Chipotle’s The Scientist ad, and Starbucks’ Shared Planet marketing plan as good examples of how linking a company’s purpose and values with great stories are highly profitable.

The message from our visit to Edelman is that communication is key. Know your audience, know your customers, know your (company’s) self. And craft your message to persuade them. Only when we communicate well to all of the stakeholders in and outside the company will sustainability truly become the norm.

Written by Matt Fanelli

Matt is a JD/MBA candidate at the University of Oregon with a focus on sustainable business practices. He loves food, music, and a good beer. After graduating in the spring, he plans to get a job that affects positive change in his community.