Communicating sustainability: the new PAR for the course

Last week I saw two very different groups wrestle with communicating sustainability.  One, made up of industry leaders and academics meeting in Austin TX, informed and impressed me.  The other, made up of 18- and 19-year-old students and their amazing teacher hard at work in Montezuma NM, blew me away.

The industry and academic folks were at the winter meeting of the US Business Council for Sustainable Development.  It was late in a day filled with heavy content on material reuse, post-consumer recycling, and water challenges.  We ran a session on “communicating sustainability.”  It was part hands-on planning and part catharsis.  Participants identified critical factors in successfully communicating about sustainability with people in their own organizations.

There were useful comments about “know the audience” and “find the right messenger”.  A chemical company manager made a great point about “action”: sustainability communication needs to lead to real actions that can be taken, not just arm-waving.  An innovative leader in by-product reuse (from a company that historically led the nation in bureaucracy) made an even more powerful point about “passion”: sustainability communication needs to come from and convey a real emotional component, and not just sit on the table as an abstract intellectual discussion.

I came away thinking, “That was a good session, some good take-aways, even some inspiration.”

Then came Montezuma.  A few days after the USBCSD session, I visited the UWC-USA campus and sat in on Ben Gillock’s environmental systems class. Ben’s class included students from around the world — I recall Malawi, Nepal, Trinidad & Tobago, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Texas and New Hampshire, and there were more.  He had them playing the parts of a wide range of developed and developing nations; I think the student from Nepal played Japan, and Malawi played China.  The students were role-playing a realistic multi-national climate change conference.  Negotiations were intense, rigorous, and fact-based.

Ben’s artful mix of data, technology, stage management and charisma kept the negotiations on target, while also fluid and fun.  The students wheeled, dealed and tried urgently to create workable solutions.

I heard some echoes from the USBCSD session: both passion and action were key to every negotiation.  But thanks to Ben, a third element ran through the whole class: respect.  As national representatives, the students respected their fellow-nations if they had any hope of being effective, staying alert to other nations’ economic needs and political realities.  As people, the students respected their fellow students, both within and across their teams.  The students clearly learned a lot.  I learned more.

Passion + Action + Respect.  “PAR.”  Not a bad set of rules to live by in communicating sustainability.  Or anything else.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]