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You Don’t Have A Sustainability Story Until You’re on A Sustainability Journey: A Cautionary Tale

path in mountains

Suzanne Shelton recently wrote a great piece for GreenBiz about the marketing side of sustainability strategy She offers some very sound and practical ways for companies to talk about what they do in sustainability – while also pointing out that commitment and action are needed in advance of the talking.

I was struck by the parallels with our own work. We often run into clients who want to tout what they have done as being more sustainable. What they’re missing is that we’re not currently living in a sustainable world, so sustainability isn’t something you already did. Sustainability requires change on a daily basis, today, tomorrow, and the next day — it’s a journey we’re making so that, hopefully, our children or their children can live within the planet’s means.

In this context, we strive hard to help clients identify impact reduction goals, and even the aspirational “moonshot” goals that Shelton talks about, that also provide monetary value to the company. That’s the type of insight that can result from sustainability assessments such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Sustainable Return on Investment (S-ROI).

These insights aren’t just about reducing your footprint. They can reveal ways to reduce your costs or your customer’s costs, increase your market share, or even innovate a new product or business model. And in the process, they can help create what Shelton describes as the pillars that support your marketing rallying cry.
Of course, there are plenty of organizations that just want to say that they “did an LCA.” When we lost a bid to a major consumer products company late last year, their response to us said, “We were impressed with the impact you can provide.” But in the course of our discussions, we’d heard clearly that the company wasn’t interested in the journey and didn’t really want insights. I consoled our team saying, “they’re not interested in the impact we can provide. They just want to check that box.” Interestingly, this is the second time we’ve lost a bid for that company, which some organizations (other than ours) have accused of greenwashing.

But happily, there are also plenty of organizations that are excited for the journey. A great example is capital equipment supplier Green Carbon (sister company to OTR Wheel), a producer of machinery for tire recycling. The first LCA they commissioned showed that the natural gas used to start up their recycling process caused a significant environmental burden. So they reengineered the process to be almost completely self-sustaining. They’ve reduced the external energy requirements—and the costs for their customer—to only a bit of electricity.

That required significant work on their part, but they pulled off a pretty neat trick for producing desirable materials and fuels with very low energy consumption. Moreover, thanks to tipping fees, recyclers are actually getting paid to use the feedstock. Their latest LCA reflects these benefits and points out another area where they can focus efforts to reduce impacts and, likely, the cost to their customers.

Another useful journey-planning tool is Anticipatory LCA, which identified potential impacts for products and services that are still in development (and thus more easily modified). We’ve recently gotten strong results while applying this on behalf of companies both large and small. It’s a delight to run a quick screening LCA of a client’s product and hear the excitement as they see the results and throw out ideas for further refinement or scenario analysis. Or to hear how a capital equipment maker for the auto industry is able to turn broad industry insights into ideas for their own manufacturing. Best of all is uncovering new business models that have the potential to drastically reduce impacts while providing a new, robust revenue stream.
Another exciting example relates to the pressing problem of ocean plastics. One of our clients offered an ocean-degradable product, and we were able to help them identify a development path for it that would reduce upstream impacts to LCA equivalency with a non-degradable product. This allows them to offer a clear benefit over the conventional non-degradable material. (Although the environmental and health impacts of ocean plastic are not yet assessable in the LCA process, work is underway, and we look forward to future integration.)

Bottom line: stop focusing on publicizing things you’ve already done in the name of sustainability. That will cause you to miss out on bigger opportunities and potentially leave you open to being called a greenwasher.

Instead, follow Shelton’s advice to start shaping your sustainability journey by measuring impacts and using that knowledge to define your forward-looking commitments. That sets you up not only for a more powerful marketing message, but also for a lot of good business value that can’t be found any other way.