This column is about the “how” of sustainable business, featuring one significant change and how a leader (and team) made it happen. Josh Prigge is founder and CEO of sustainability consulting firm Sustridge and host of the Sustainable Nation podcast. He just completed his 50th episode. The podcast started earlier this year and features sustainability leaders across business, higher education and government. We discussed the cumulative learnings of these 50 leaders.
Bob Langert: What pops out first as most in common to all 50 interviewees?
Josh Prigge: Collaboration is probably the No. 1 theme that keeps coming up for successfully leading sustainability change initiatives, as well as the power of networks, both internally and externally, and cross-sector collaboration.
Most sustainability leaders have relatively small teams within large organizations. So, developing relationships really is crucial in having the ability to influence others and is what really drives change.
Langert: How does one really influence people?
Prigge: Being a good communicator and being open to other people’s ideas. Empathy is a big thing. So, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding what’s important to others. Being able to communicate how sustainability fits in there and how sustainability can be helpful to them in what they’re trying to accomplish in their department.
I think it turns people off when, as a sustainability professional, you’re trying to tell other people what to do or what needs to be done.
Langert: With all these interviews you’ve done with all these different sector people, it must be so fascinating. Has anything been unexpected?
Prigge: I’ve been somewhat surprised by a couple things. One is just the level of commitment that we’re seeing in all of these sectors. The number of organizations and communities that are embracing things like the Sustainable Development Goals, science-based targets, the B Corp movement and the concept of regenerative development.
It’s just been amazing to see all these sectors really embracing this next step in the evolution of sustainable development. Moving past sustainability, past the idea of merely reducing negative impacts, to embracing regenerative practices and a focus on positive impacts. So, I’ve seen universities that have goals of net-zero water use and climate-positive goals. Governments that are committing to regenerative agriculture and zero-waste futures. Businesses with net-positive corporate footprint goals.
Langert: Has anything surprised you?Prigge: What’s surprising me is the amount of optimism in all sectors and how excited everyone is, especially now more than ever in the absence of any federal leadership. The optimism about our ability to make that change has been impressive.
It’s been somewhat surprising to me because as sustainability professionals, we’re also painfully aware of the trouble that we’re in and the issues that we’re facing as a planet and as a society. But at the same time, I guess we’re surrounded by each other. We surround ourselves with some of the most passionate, brilliant, committed people in the world. So I think we give each other hope and I think we build that optimism within each other.
Langert: Since you hear leaders communicating on your podcasts, what are the best tips you’ve learned about how to best verbally communicate?
Prigge: I think both internally and externally, the No. 1 thing is being authentic. From my own experience and from all the interviews I’ve done, this is really the most important thing when communicating sustainability.
Langert: Translate that into, how does one be authentic?
Prigge: I guess there’s so much greenwashing out there, and people are getting smart. Don’t make sustainability a separate marketing and communication initiative.
How does sustainability fit into who you are as an organization? Communicate how sustainability ties into the core mission or purpose of the organization, whether it’s how sustainability ties into the purpose of the business, or how it helps a university provide valuable education for its students or helps prepare students to become global citizens. Or how it helps to provide a safe, healthy, equitable environment for your community. Talk about how the core mission or purpose, what that is and then how sustainability is helping to realize that vision.
Langert: What have you observed with the sustainability leaders when it comes to things that are not working well?
Prigge: Be transparent about it. Be open about it. I’ve learned that people will give you the benefit of the doubt. And I think a lot of corporations are scared to take that leap, to make that announcement, to set those goals because they’re afraid of falling short, but I think they need to understand that people maybe aren’t as concerned about that part as they are of just knowing that you’re making an effort and you’re starting your journey.
Langert: You ask all your interviewees, “What is one piece of advice you would give to other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?” What comes up most?
Prigge: Well, broken record, but building relationships internally and externally is the most common response I get there. So, again, being very strategic and deliberate in understanding who you need to develop relationships with and who you need to maintain them with.
You can understand all of the sustainability frameworks and know everything about what is needed for an organization. But if you don’t have strong relationships, you’re not going to be able to implement much of that.
Another takeaway is to look outside your industry, even outside your sector. So, myself personally, I think it really helped that I worked in higher education for several years, and then moved to the corporate world, and I hear this from a lot of my guests as well. So, look at higher ed, look at business, look at government for ideas, for models, for strategies. Stay informed on sustainability issues in all these different areas because there’s a lot of great things going on.