AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Sustainability 2.0

Copyright 2008 AXIS Performance Advisors

Sustainability 2.0

Life after the tipping point

By Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy samuiblue,

Courtesy samuiblue,

There is a model of organizational and societal change called the Diffusion of Innovation Theory. You may never have heard the term but you are likely familiar with some of its concepts. The theory hypothesizes that change moves into a population in a series of stages with different parts of the population open to the change at different points. These groups are laid out along a bell curve: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. There is a long period of incubation where the innovators and early adopters invent practices and then the graph turns abruptly skyward as the early majority comes on board.

I have known of this process for years, but witnessing the crook of the hockey stick in the graph is quite something to behold. Marsha and I got the sustainability bug 13 years ago. Thanks to the emotional support of like-minded people in organizations like the Oregon Natural Step, we were able to maintain a sense of hope that this idea would eventually catch on. We watched others who shared the passion get burned out trying to make a living at this and woefully return to regular jobs. But stubbornly, I refused to do any other work. I couldn’t see the point of spending my life energy making the world worse. I am grateful to Marsha Willard, my partner, for letting me follow my calling even though our business took a hit for it for a while.

The early adopter phase stretched on for years and there were times when I wondered if we were trying to make a business out of wishful thinking. Sustainability made so much strategic sense, it seemed inevitable, but for a decade there was little evidence that this would ever be more than a fringe concept.

Suddenly, just in the last year or two, a sea-change happened, so fast it takes my breath away. All of us in the business can feel it. “Sustainability” went from a term that the media considered too abstract for their readers—journalistic suicide to use—to one heralded in a broad array of publications including Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Time, and Popular Mechanics. Suddenly Green is cool, a selling point for cars, paints, and homes. It’s no longer just a platform for left-leaning Democrats but now sports the support of prominent Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain.

What caused the tipping point? Hurricane Katrina convinced a majority of Americans that climate change wasn’t some distant concern but a palpable and immediate threat. The Inconvenient Truth and the Nobel Peace Prize for Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave visibility to the science. Utilities, energy companies, and large energy users have had to contend with peak-oil prices and threats of carbon taxes. Citizens are in sticker shock at the gas station. The Europeans passed regulations related to toxic chemicals and product take-back that have shaken a broad array of industries including electronics, plastics and agriculture. But these are examples of Sustainability 1.0 where it is used as a shield against threats.

Just off stage, out of view of most of the population, Sustainability 2.0 has been coalescing around the idea that sustainability is not just about reacting to threats. It’s a humdinger of a business opportunity. Cleantech is now one of the largest areas of venture capital. Solar and wind power are neck-in-neck as the fastest growing areas for new electricity production. Socially responsible and sustainable investing has grown 15 fold from 1995-2005, far outpacing the growth of the industry as a whole. According to Corporate Register, two-thirds of the Fortune 500 produces a sustainability or corporate social responsibility report, and they, of course, have to push on their suppliers. This interest has led to corporate non sequiturs where Clorox offers green cleaning products and Wal-Mart sets goals for zero waste and 100 percent renewable energy.

All these changes have led Marsha and me to rethink our own business strategy. We never wanted to expand the size of our company; I’ve had to make payroll and it’s not the fun part of work. If we stay small and continue to spend most of our time working with individual clients, our impact would be limited. So we have conceptualized our work in four quarters:

Client work—We continue to work with clients. We enjoy the work and the relationships. We learn from them and hopefully vice versa. They give us ways to experiment with new material and provide us stories for our books, training and speeches.

Education—Through a combination of teaching and speaking, we inspire others to adopt sustainability and we teach others how to do what we know how to do. Rather than hoarding our methods, we make them available to other sustainability professionals so we all can speed the adoption of sustainable practices. We teach at Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s MBA in Sustainable Business and the University of Oregon’s Leadership in Sustainability Series. Darcy has signed up with a speakers bureau and started doing keynote addresses. Soon we will have close to 100 people licensed to use our SCORE sustainability assessment and we are now training people on SPaRK, our Sustainability Planning and Reporting Kit and planning process. And the Sustainable Today TV show brings the message into people’s homes.

Writing—Writing books is another way we can make our knowledge accessible to others. Our most recent book, The Business Guide to Sustainability, won the American Library Association’s award for ‘best academic titles for 2007.’ (It was published in 2006, but we’re not complaining.) We are now putting the finishing touches on The Step by Step Guide to Sustainability Planning, which should be available this fall, and we will be releasing an updated edition of The Business Guide early next year.

Professional association—With the help of the Zero Waste Alliance, as well as an international group of founding members and Advisory Board, we opened the doors to the International Society of Sustainability Professionals last fall and continue to attract members from around the world. We offer networking, professional development and resources for people working in this field. By volunteering almost 10-15 percent of our time for the last two years, we hope to have created a valuable resource for sustainability practitioners. We are working on a competency study that will define the skills and knowledge a sustainability practitioner should have: the core skill-set everyone should possess and the special knowledge for such different practice areas as architects, purchasing managers, consultants, and sustainability directors. ISSP offers a monthly webinar series now on a wide range of topics and will begin distance-learning training in the fall. Our newsletter now includes interview-style articles of luminaries in the field as well as news and links to new content on our site. By giving the field credibility and supporting members in their own professional development, our vision is to make sustainability standard practice in every organization. (To learn more, go to

So what about you? How have you integrated sustainability into your life and work? If you believe as we do that sustainability is a critical strategic threat and opportunity, how well is your organization doing at integrating it? This is the most important challenge of our time: to transform our society from one that depletes natural resources and widens the gap between have’s and have-not’s, to one where a healthy economy, community and environment are optimized. The Industrial Revolution is dying of natural causes. It’s up to us to figure out what is going to replace it, something much better or something unthinkable. It’s up to us.

As the Hopi Elders put it:

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.

Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.

And there are things to be considered:

  • Where are you living?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are your relationships?
  • Are you in right relation?
  • Where is your water?
  • Know your garden.
  • It is time to speak your Truth.
  • Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader.

This could be a good time!

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.

Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!

Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.

All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

—The Elders Oraibi, Arizona Hopi Nation

© Copyright 2008 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc. All rights reserved.


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