Month <span class=March 2015" src="/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/cropped-office-building-secondary-1.jpg">

Month March 2015

Sustainability Consulting: One Size Does Not Fit All

The SSC Team March 31, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Here is a blog entry from the early days of the SSC blog. Enjoy!

To remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace, companies of all shapes and sizes and from different industries and sectors are introducing sustainability programs to gain a competitive advantage. Companies are expected to react to these changing dynamics and to address the changing consumer preferences for environmentally and socially sustainable products and services. The ideas of corporate social responsibility and sustainability are no longer fringe issues or passing trends, but are topping the list of strategic issues of executive management at Fortune 500 companies. Most multinational firms have incorporated some sort of sustainability initiative within operations, such as ethical sourcing, measuring and reducing carbon usage and recycling initiatives. 

However, small- and medium-size companies are in a unique situation when it comes to sustainability. These firms don’t necessarily have the time, money or other resources to lead a full-blown, comprehensive sustainability program. Because of these differences, it is important to realize that sustainability consulting cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. What works for a Fortune 100 company most likely will not be a good fit for a small business. This is why it’s so important to hire consultants that really understand the process of developing and implementing sustainability programs, the resources available and constraints to expect, as well as the stakeholder “buy-in” necessary to execute a successful sustainability strategy for a small- or medium-size company. With these pieces in place, professional sustainability consultants can successfully navigate companies through the sustainability arena. 

Sustainability consultants must remain flexible and adaptable, and should be competent in assessing the feasibility of programs and identify long-term opportunities and constraints. Consultants should recognize that a company typically cannot make one isolated change without addressing the impact of that change on other issues in the business. This “results-oriented” thinking ignores the complexity of execution and implementation of programs and does not provide opportunities for the necessary reflection and evaluation of the sustainability initiatives.

One of the key factors contributing to success of a sustainability plan is the level of collaboration and engagement among employees and other stakeholders during the planning process. This balance of top-down and bottom-up planning increases the likelihood of the plan gaining support and advocacy from stakeholders during the implementation phase. Finally, consultants should work with companies to plan long-term sustainability programs that are tied into business objectives, which will deliver a more integrated approach to sustainability. This is critical, as most “knee-jerk” programs that are not well-thought out, planned or executed have not proven to be very successful or sustainable.

Feeling like your sustainability plan isn't getting as much attention as it deserves? Read about how to fix that here!

The Secret Step to Effective Carbon Management – Clarify Your Goals

The SSC Team March 26, 2015 Tags: , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Carbon management is always important, so we thought this blog entry from 2013 was worth another share! Enjoy:

When it comes to managing your company's carbon emissions, it can be difficult to know where to start. Should you send out an email reminding employees to turn off their computers each night? Start researching the more than 80 different carbon accounting software options? Gather your executive team around the board room table to talk about 5-year goals? Hire a consultant? Set aside three days to read through the international standards for carbon accounting and reporting?

If you're not careful, you can end up spinning your wheels and getting nowhere fast. 

To help you avoid that ignoble end, we've put together a blog series that outlines our 6-step process for helping clients develop a carbon management program. While the level of time and effort required for each step will depend on the size of your organization and your industry, all organizations should follow basically the same path. 

Clarify your goals. This is the very first thing you need to do, and often the most-overlooked. Being crystal clear on your goals for emissions management allows you to:

Be a more effective internal salesman. 

When you need to convince your executive team to provide additional support (in terms of budget or simply more of their attention and encouragement), it will be essential to have a compelling "pitch". 

Choose the appropriate team.

Carbon management will require support from facilities management, purchasing, finance, communications, and human resources. Knowing the scope and shape of your goals will help you decide who needs to be on your carbon management team. 

Designate a carbon leader

Carbon management is a interdisciplinary effort, and you'll need to choose someone to navigate the intra-office politics, collect and vet the data, draft and edit communications, and prioritize competing initiatives. Seniority is not important (although it can be helpful) -- the key is that you need to choose someone with excellent interpersonal skills and a special affinity for juggling multiple projects at the same time.

Stay focused

Later on in the process, when you have to make tough decisions about which eco-initiative to prioritize, you will find it invaluable to be able to compare projects against your program goals. 

Do you find your sustainability communications failing? Here are 9 reasons that might be happening.

AGPOM Offers Sustainability Risk Management Certificate Program

Tara Hughes March 24, 2015 Stephen Bushnell + Associates No comments

Sustainability Risk management

AGPOM has partnered with Poplar Network to offer members a 20% discount on the Sustainability Risk Management (SRM) Certificate Program with industry expert, Stephen Bushnell. 

The Sustainable Risk Management Course is designed for green building practitioners, businesses and organizations concerned with sustainability, insurers and insurance agents and anyone with an interest in learning more about the intersection of risk management and green/sustainable strategies.

The comprehensive four-week online program consists of four modules, each exploring a different facet of sustainability and risk management. It also offers access to a live curriculum with Stephen Bushnell, a seasoned insurance industry executive who was one of the first to see and act on the connections between economic and risk management benefits of green building.

Upon completion, participants will have a deeper level of understanding of Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) as it pertains to sustainability and green buildings and receive a Certificate of Sustainability Risk Management.

By registering for this Certificate Program, participants are able to obtain an important level of understanding to quantify, underwrite, mitigate and evaluate green risk transfer and management techniques. When enrolling be sure to inquire about the AGPOM Member 20% Discount!

Read the full press release here

To learn more about the Sustainability Risk Management Certificate Program click here.

6 Reasons Your Sustainability Innovation Is Failing

The SSC Team March 24, 2015 Tags: , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

In 2013, Jennifer Woofter wrote an article for Environmental Leader that highlighted some ways your sustainability innovation might be failing. We thought that the article was worth another share. Enjoy!

For the last few weeks, I’ve been participating in Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizationsa course by David A. Owens of Vanderbilt University. It’s a Coursera class, which means that it’s free and open to the public — and it’s huge (with tens of thousands of students “in attendance”). I’m fascinated by the topic of strategic innovation, and naturally want to apply the concepts to my own field of study: sustainability.

And here is the question I’m wrestling with: why is innovation not getting us closer to global sustainability? Climate change, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss—for all the brilliant advances in “green” processes, products, and services, we’re still losing the battle.

But why? Or at least, why is it taking so long?

In particular, I find Owen’s analysis of common innovation hurdles to be a great aid to my quest to understand why current innovation efforts don’t seem to be making a significant dent in our global sustainability problems.

Owen argues that hurdles to innovation can come from six different places. I’ve listed them below, along with my own comments about how they apply specifically to sustainability challenges.

Individuals Don’t Have the Mindset

Are individuals regularly challenged to think differently and challenge assumptions? This holds true for corporate employees, government drones, and stay-at-home moms. How often do any of us really stop and think about why we are doing the things that we’re doing, how they might be done differently, and our role in the larger “system”. Without an innovation mindset at the individual level, we’ll never come up with enough ideas to throw into the mix.

Example: The “average” employees. For most of us, life in the American workforce isn’t a hotbed of sustainability innovation. We get our jobs done, hope for a promotion, and struggle to maintain work/life balance. Rarely do we really wrestle with how to creatively disrupt our daily tasks with sustainable innovation.

The Group’s Culture Doesn’t Support Risk

Maybe individuals have great ideas, but the ideas are killed while still “tiny sweet things” because they are deemed too risky, too expensive, too disruptive, or just too crazy. It might be the boss crushing your dream, or simply a group culture that doesn’t encourage exploring bold new ideas.

Example: The last time your Green Team took a “great idea” to your boss, only to have it shut down because it was too expensive or time consuming. (But definitely go ahead with those cute stickers reminding people to turn off their lights!)

Your Organization Isn’t Structured to Move Ideas through to Production

Even if an innovative idea gets internal group support, the organization (company, government, household, or community) may hold it back. In a company, this is often because there is no clear path for moving an idea through the corporate hierarchy, and the brilliant innovative idea flounders in no-man’s land.

Example: You’ve got an idea to shift your manufacturing plant over to renewable energy using an awesome new program offered by your utility company. But you’re a middle manager, and no one can decide who “owns” the process—facilities, finance, production, or legal—so your idea sits in limbo until the new program’s funds expire.

The Market Doesn’t See Value in Your Innovation

The idea is solid, and the sustainability benefits are tremendous. There’s just one problem: no one wants to adopt your innovation. If you can’t get your innovation diffused through society (or your customer base), your brilliant idea won’t get the traction it needs to scale.

Example: Loud snack food packaging. Need I say more? 

Society Doesn’t Accept Your Idea as Legitimate

The common example given about “societal illegitimacy” is human cloning: a fascinating innovation, but not particularly ethical (or so say the UN and various other governing bodies). The key concept here is that innovation must be seen as palatable — if not to the masses, then at least to the target audience you seek to change.

Example: I love the Zero Waste Home. This is a family that has radically shifted their lifestyle so that they generate zero waste. EVERY aspect of their lives aligns with this principle (they don’t even have a garbage can, just a tiny recycling box for the curb!). Now, this is certainly innovative, but I think we can agree that (at least for 99.99% of society) this is not a palatable lifestyle. 

The Technology Isn’t There

Even if everything else is in alignment, we often need technology to help us achieve the innovation. The technology must be available and feasible, meaning it can’t be too complex, too expensive, or too restricted to use in practical applications.

Example: Space solar power. It is definitely innovative, but the cost of the technology prevents it from being a realistic solution to today’s reliance on fossil fuels.

In many cases, there will be a combination of innovation obstacles preventing us from moving closer to sustainability. Sadly, these aren’t simple solutions to solve. (Just try building and deploying a space solar power array.) So where does that leave us?

Three thoughts come to mind:

First, if you are an individual employee with a great sustainability idea, it can be helpful (for your mental health, if nothing else) to preemptively identify where you are likely to hit a roadblock.

Second, if you are an organization looking for great sustainability ideas that will reduce your environmental impacts and save you boatloads of money, don’t just expect employees to come up with great ideas. Make sure you create an atmosphere that embraces risk (or at least enjoys exploring bold ideas), as well as delineates a clear path to help get those bold ideas into practice.

Third, take the time to understand your stakeholder preferences. Will your customers buy in? Is it legitimate and palatable to your target audience? What assumptions are you making, and how can you test them before launching into full scale innovation production.

The intersection of innovation and sustainability is a hot topic these days, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to sustainable innovation in today’s world? Leave a comment or join in the conversation on Twitter!

9 Reasons Your Sustainability Communications Fail

The SSC Team March 19, 2015 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

Sustainability leaders have to talk - a lot. Sometimes they speak at conferences, other times they speak to clients, or they might even write a guest article for a website. Regardless of the audience or platform, if you're in sustainability, you have to communicate. But every so often communications can fail.

What happens when you do notice that you're not getting your sustainability message across? Fast Company published an article that highlighted 9 different ways a leader's communication might be stalling. We thought that the reasons mentioned in the article also work perfectly for sustainability communications.

1. Distrust Versus Trust

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone who is not 100% on board with sustainability, and you instantly go on the defensive? Instead of distrusting the person you're talking to right off the bat, try trusting them. When you open up, communications can go a lot further.

2. Monologue Versus Collaboration

You're speaking to a room full of people, and you find yourself talking non-stop. Take a moment and look at the crowd. How engaged are they? Do you see people doing head nods? It's very easy to get carried away when speaking, because you want to get your point across, but collaboration goes a long way. Engage with the audience and see what happens!

3. Complexity Versus Simplicity

The sustainability field loves their acronyms. GHG. LCA. GRI. CDP. SASB. IIRC. The list goes on and on. While many people within sustainability might know what you're talking about when mentioning these words, but you don't always know who is in your audience. Simplicity is key; don't get carried away with industry lingo.

4. Insensitivity Versus Tact

When talking about sustainability, the conversation can often mention climate change. Unfortunately, climate change is still a politically-charged topic, and people can get turned off when listening to someone speak about it. You don't have to avoid the topic completely, but be smart and tactful about how you approach certain topics.

5. Achievement Versus Potential

You might have a handful of published reports under your belt and a countless number of speaking opportunities, but that doesn't mean you can rest on your laurels. You might think you know the best way to deliver a presentation, but listen and look to the people around. There is always room to grow and improve the way you communicate sustainability.

6. Dilution Versus Distinction

You find yourself trying to convince a client that it's important to publish a sustainability report, and in order to prove your point, you keep going on and on with a variety of anecdotes and facts. Stop diluting your point and cut to the chase. If you keep dragging out your reason why, the client may lose interest! Clear through the clutter, and lay out the key facts.

7. Generalization Versus Specificity

It's very easy when writing sustainability plans, reports, etc. to become very generic with your statements. "X company cares deeply about the environment." "X company works very hard at recycling." Instead of just spouting off platitudes, get specific. How has a company achieved their recycling goals? What sets a company apart from others when it comes to environmental care? Make your communications meaningful.

8. Logic Versus Emotion

There is a time for logic and a time for emotion when it comes to communication, but what happens when you don't recognize the right place to use these two tactics? If you're trying to motivate a crowd at a conference to get excited about sustainability, tap in on emotion, but if you're speaking to a client about a potential project, use logic.

9. Distortion Versus Perspective

The sustainability field is ever-changing, and no one can remain an expert forever. Don't write an article acting like you know everything about sustainability, or don't give a presentation where you come off as being better than everyone else. With new information and research always being published, sometimes you should take a back seat and learn from your peers. After all, no one likes listening to a know-it-all.

Is your sustainability plan failing to get attention? Here are 7 different ways to improve that.

AGPOM’s Investment in Renewable Energy Credits Benefits Members

Tara Hughes March 17, 2015 Industry News No comments
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AGPOM Invests 10% of annual revenue in Renewable Energy Credits on behalf of our members

Through a unique partnership with Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), AGPOM creates an additional incentive for our members to “green” their business.

Each year AGPOM dedicates 10% of our membership revenue to implement environmentally sustainable business practices in the name of AGPOM Membership. This annual investment is used to purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) on behalf of AGPOM member companies. Renewable energy facilities generate renewable energy credits (RECs) when they produce electricity. Purchasing these credits is a way to reduce the environmental footprint of our member’s electricity consumption. This year’s (2015) purchase of 4,790 RECs (4,790,000 kWh) is the equivalent to powering nearly 600,000 sqft of office space for a year (598,750 sqft exactly) OR powering 496 average US homes for one year! AGPOM also partners with BEF to mitigate AGPOM’s own annual operational carbon and water footprint through the purchase of RECs, Carbon Offsets and Water Restoration Certificates® (WRCs).

Through the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates (also known as Renewable Energy Credits or RECs), businesses and organizations such as AGPOM can affordably purchase the environmental benefits of renewable power generated from facilities throughout the U.S.

Green-e Energy Certified RECs represent renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or biogas projects where lean energy has been delivered to the North American power grid to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel-based electricity. One REC represents the non-power environmental attributes of 1,000 kilowatt-hours (1 megawatt hour) of renewable energy. All of BEF’s REC products are Green-e® Energy certified.

Carbon Offsets (also called Carbon Credits) provide businesses with a verified method to balance an unavoidable carbon footprint by directly supporting projects that are proven to reduce carbon emissions.

So much water is withdrawn from rivers and streams to service individuals, agriculture, industry and businesses that across North America tens of thousands of miles of dry or critically dewatered river systems now exist. In many places, water withdrawals completely dry up streams and significantly impact water quality, native fish and wildlife, aesthetics and recreational opportunities. BEF’s Water Restoration Certificates® (WRCs) offer the first-of-its-kind tool to go a step further—to actually restore the water footprint businesses can’t avoid, gallon-for-gallon, to critically dewatered rivers and streams.

bef logo with name

Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), is a national nonprofit that empowers businesses to be in balance with the environment through a full suite of environmental products, educational and community engagement programs along with custom solutions that help our partners address their unavoidable energy, carbon and water impacts. BEF aligns their partners’ goals with extensive industry expertise to achieve immediate results today while helping solve tomorrow’s biggest environmental challenges.

Learn more about Bonneville Environmental Foundation here.

Four Ways Summer Interns Can Advance Your Corporate Sustainability

The SSC Team March 17, 2015 Tags: , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

With internship season right around the corner, we thought we would share this article Jennifer Woofter wrote for Environmental Leader in 2012. Enjoy:

Here are four projects that you can easily assign to summer staff. These “intern-ready tasks” require no fancy software or specialized training — just the ability to move freely around your facility and observe current practices.

In general, each project will take about 2 weeks to execute (including planning, analysis, and debriefing) and require little planning. So even if you hadn’t thought about it until now, there’s still plenty of time to squeeze in a couple of them before the summer runs out!

Project One: Lighting Analysis

Want to know how much electricity you could save by retrofitting your office, warehouse, factory, or other facilities? You’ll need to start by understanding your current lighting profile — including what kind of lights are currently used, how often (and for what duration) they are used, and their energy impact. Have an intern (or group of interns) survey your facility and assemble a spreadsheet.

Once your intern has collected a robust lighting spreadsheet, you’ll be able to prioritize efforts and determine the impact of switching to newer lighting (e.g. by upgrading your overhead florescent tubing to more efficient versions), where lighting should be eliminated (e.g. unnecessary incandescent desk lamps), and the cost savings associated with any of the changes under consideration. Some of this preliminary analysis may be done by your summer interns, but we recommend that they work in close supervision with facility staff to keep them on the right track.

Project Two: Paper Chase

There are many reasons to reduce paper use in your office — cost savings, better accessibility, increased security, less clutter, and (of course) saving trees. But before you issue a mandate to “use less paper” it’s helpful to know exactly how much paper is being used, how it’s being used, and how long it’s being used (before it’s thrown away). You can turn this into a scavenger hunt, if you approach it right.

Start with the purchasing records to figure out how much paper (including copy paper, envelopes, stationary, post-it notes, invoices, etc.) is used each year. Be sure to include third-party printed documents such as annual reports, brochures, or sales materials that might never actually pass through your office but are part of your “paper footprint” nonetheless. Make a note of the paper manufacturer, the percentage of recycled content, other “green” attributes (such as “processed chlorine free”), and the cost per unit.

Then, figure out how and when that paper is used. How much paper is used for “corporate” things — like printing annual reports? How much is used by individual employees — such as printing out emails or documents for editing? Is the accounting department sucking up eighty-five % of the paper, or are they e-doc pros that can serve as inspiration for the rest of the company? How much paper is used in meetings — does everyone bring a copy of the 10-page agenda, or can it simply be emailed ahead of time and shared on the LCD projector?

Once you’ve got a good baseline, you’ll be well-equipped to go on a paper-busting bonanza. And more importantly: you’ll be able to target your initiative at the right people and the right paper types.

Project Three: Mail Review

Sit your interns down in the mail room for a week and ask them to collect information on your current mail systems. For starters, ask them to classify each type of incoming and outgoing mail, and the number of items falling into each category. For example, under incoming mail you might have: billing/invoices, personal correspondence, catalogs, priority envelopes, boxes/packages, and “junk.”

While the interns are conducting their initial tally, they can also be investigating opportunities to consolidate mailings (maybe you don’t need 50 copies of the Staples office supplies catalog!) or switch to electronic formats. For example, if you find that the mailroom sends out priority envelopes 50 times a week (at $5.15 a pop) for contract signatures, you’ll have added financial justification for pushing that e-signature solution.

Project Four: Waste Audit

If your interns are ready to get their hands dirty, consider doing a waste audit. Set aside your office waste for a week in a safe place. Then spread the waste and sort it into key categories such as landfill, food, mixed recycling, Styrofoam, paper, and cardboard.  Next weigh each category and tally the results in a spreadsheet. You can run a variety of calculations on the raw data, but at a minimum you can determine: how much waste you generate in an average week, what your waste stream looks like, what percentage of that waste is currently recycled, and what percentage of that waste could be (but is not) recycled.

It’s grubby work, and there are a number of safety precautions that should be implemented before you turn your interns loose with a pitchfork and a bag of garbage. So make sure that you do your research and take time to set up the area, prep your interns, and explain the process ahead of time.

Short on Time or Staff? Here are Eleven Quick Tasks Perfect for Interns:

  1. Investigate food composting options available in your area
  2. Research local green business networking opportunities
  3. Enter previous years’ utility data into EPA’s Portfolio Manager tool
  4. Research sustainability conferences that might be worth attending and why
  5. Create signs to remind people to turn off the lights when they leave a room, make double-sided copies in the copy room, etc.
  6. Research local “green” tax incentives, rebates, grants, credits, and deductions
  7. Conduct a brown bag lunch to share ideas on how the company can “go green”
  8. Pull together some examples/templates for sustainability-related policies (like green purchasing)
  9. Research greener kitchen options (like getting rid of paper plates and upgrading to permanent cutlery)
  10. Research and put together a “green plan” for next year’s summer interns
  11. Compare “greener” office product pricing against current purchasing practices

Interested in finding job within the field of sustainability? Read about some of the common mistakes job seekers make.

7 Ways to Get Attention for Your Sustainability Plan

The SSC Team March 12, 2015 Tags: , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

By: Alexandra Kueller

Your company has just put the finishing touches on their sustainability plan, and they’re ready to publish it and show the world. Just one problem: it’s now becoming commonplace for companies to only publish their annual sustainability reports, but also publish their sustainability plans. How do you make sure that your company’s sustainability plan sticks outs from the rest of them?

Harvard Business Review published an article focusing on how people can capture someone’s attention by using 7 different triggers. We thought that these triggers could not only apply to people in the workplace, but also a company’s sustainability plan. Below we explain how to take these triggers to help bring attention to your sustainability plan:

Automaticity

People like the familiar, and there is a certain familiarity to sustainability plans. There are certain words that a lot of companies put in their plans, such as “materiality” or “life cycle assessment” or “2020 goals”. By putting in these sustainability “trigger words”, they act as a jump starter for the brain and help the reader have a most instant, automatic focus on that section.

Framing

At their core, sustainability plans are similar: they help layout what a company intends to do about sustainability, but since no two companies are the exact same, neither are their sustainability plans. By framing your plan, you can help highlight what you company wants to focus primarily. If it’s a heavy focus on waste and recycling, try and tie in this theme throughout your plan.

Disruption

Yes, you want people to read your company’s sustainability plan, but how can you make sure you sustain your reader’s attention? If your plan is the same format throughout with little variance, chances are someone might not make it to the end. If you sprinkle disruptions in your sustainability plan, like a mini case study or an anecdote from someone, it will help keep people engaged.

Reward

Someone has just read through your entire sustainability plan, but then what comes next? Find a way to reward the people who have read through your plan; give them incentive to still care what your company is doing. Maybe you’ll send out condensed quarterly updates on your sustainability initiatives, or maybe you’ll allow them to make comments or suggestions about the plan.

Reputation

Experts are trusted for a reason: they are extremely knowledgeable in their field of study. If you’re making certain claims or statements in your sustainability plan from experts, don’t just cite their names, let the readers know that they’re highly knowledgeable.

Mystery

What’s great about sustainability plans is that they are just the beginning of a new journey. As much as people like to plan for long-term goals, you’ll never exactly know how much carbon you’ll reduce or how much your company will increase their recycling. Invite people to join you on this mystery as no one knows what the ending will look like!

Acknowledgement

Give credit where credit is due. Sustainability plans aren’t easy to compose, and they require a lot of help from a wide variety of people. Have a page at the end of your plan that gives thanks to everyone that has helped you along the way. It shows that you care and value those people, and who knows how they’ll repay you in the future!

Now that you have your sustainability plan, what about creating your sustainability report? Learn about the brutal truth about sustainability reporting.

3 Stupid Mistakes that Sustainability Job Seekers Make

The SSC Team March 10, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

In 2011, Jennifer Woofter wrote an article for Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series focusing on some mistake people make when looking for a sustainability job. We thought that her article had so much good information that it was worth another share! Enjoy:

In the course of running a boutique sustainability consulting firm, I get a lot of inquiries about jobs in sustainability. Some people want to know if I’m hiring, others want an informational interview to understand the sustainability job market in general, and yet others want to hear all about how I started my company in hopes that they will walk away with an idea of how to blaze an entrepreneurial trail through the industry.

After seeing the same blunders again and again and again, I thought it might be helpful to put together a short list of common mistakes that will blow your chances of getting a job in the sustainability profession.

Mistake #1: Leading with Your Passion

In the piles of emails and letters that I get every week from sustainability job seekers, more than half of them use some form of the word “passion”. Here are a couple of excerpts from cover letters/bios I’ve received in the last week:

“My passions for renewable energy and sustainable development have driven my success…”

“I am passionate about helping companies create cultures that support and inspire their employees and community.”

“In my last corporate role I initiated corporate sustainability initiatives, mostly fueled by my own passion…”

Here is a hint: passion isn’t a selling point, it’s the minimum requirement to ride this sustainability roller coaster. We are ALL passionate about sustainability, and we’ll assume you are too. (Because honestly, who applying for a job in sustainability isn’t passionate about it?)

Yes, it’s great to be enthusiastic – but when EVERYONE is passionate about a topic, it no longer becomes something that makes you stand out. When I see a cover letter with the word “passion” in the first paragraph, it automatically gets put into the “no thanks” pile. Why?

Here is what leading with your “passion” says to me:

  • You have mostly enthusiasm, rather than experience.
  • You don’t have any hard skills to bring to the table.
  • You are emotional, not practical

If you are one of those people with “passion” in your cover letter, you might be arguing with me right now—insisting that you do have practical skills, that you are results-oriented, and that you have the right kind of experience to excel in a sustainability job. And you might be right—but I’ll never know because you are hiding those elements (the ones that will REALLY get you the job) under a obfuscating cloud of enthusiasm.

Solution: be enthusiastic—but let that excitement show through your discussion of your skills, your experience, and your approach to working on sustainability projects.

Mistake #2: Trying a Buckshot Approach

Don’t just shoot off a resume and cover letter to every sustainability job that comes across your computer screen. Please, please, please show a little restraint. For one thing, you will forever be on my hiring blacklist if you send me a cover letter addressed to the WRONG COMPANY because in your hurry the copy-and-paste job got a little sloppy. (I wish I could say that this happens only rarely.)

Even if you don’t make an obvious mistake like that one, let me assure you that it is easy to spot a “buckshot” approach to sustainability job seeking. The same generic resume, the same boring cover letter. It’s a waste of your time. You need to switch from shotgun to sniper mode.

The individuals that have gotten my attention are able to instantly demonstrate that they know my company, understand how they fit into the larger sustainability industry, and are familiar enough with me to avoid my hot button issues. (For example, on the “about Jennifer” page of my website, I clearly state that I hate when people use the term “passion” when talking about sustainability.)

DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE YOU APPLY. I know this is a no-brainer, but I’m pretty sure that every job-hunting advice column continues to include this recommendation because people just don’t get it. You need to be able to demonstrate, at a minimum, the following things:

  • You understand the organization’s approach to sustainability (treehugger vs. techie geek, antagonistic advocate vs. industry partner, “right thing to do” vs. “drives innovation”, environmental sustainability vs. triple bottom line, etc.)
  • You have skills that meet their needs (e.g. don’t spout off about your experience in renewable energy when talking to a sustainable forestry outfit unless you have a stellar reason for doing so, but don’t make the opposite mistake of leaving your skill set vague.)
  • You fit in their organizational culture (you love that it’s a small company, or you thrive in teams, or you love the challenge of working with big, bad companies facing a swatch of sustainability issues)

If you can’t answer those questions, then you haven’t done enough homework. If this information isn’t readily available, you’re going to have to do some digging. Check out their executives LinkedIn profiles, stalk their Facebook page, follow their Twitter stream (be a dear and RT once in a while—it flatters the ego and shows that you can contribute to spreading the word). Exhaust your network until you find someone who can tell you about what it’s really like to work there, what kind of projects have been keeping people busy, and what the internal atmosphere is like.

I hope that it goes without saying that you need to do this research BEFORE you make an official inquiry about a job there…you need to come to the table totally prepared. The executives on the receiving end of your attention need to feel like you already belong there, that you are ready to come onboard immediately, and that you’ll fit right in with the team. The best way to do this is to be so knowledgeable about the organization that you really DO seem like one of the team before you walk in the door.

Yeah, it’s going to take a LOT more time than you may want to spend. But if you can narrow down the number of potential organizations that you want to work for (by avoiding that buckshot approach), you’ll have more time to spend on your short-list of the most relevant and exciting prospects.

Mistake #3: Not Following Directions

This is an easy one, with an easy solution. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. If the website says no phone calls, then don’t call. If they say only the applicants selected for an interview will be contacted, then don’t harass the poor HR manager about whether or not you have been chosen. I know, it’s so tempting to just break all the rules and go after the job you want (and I’m ashamed to see other job advice and career counselors recommending breaking the rules) but I promise, it doesn’t work.

(You probably know someone, or have heard a story about someone who broke the rules and by showing persistence got the job. This is the exception to the rule, and it has the unfortunate effect of making lots of people think that they too can be the exception to the rule.)

By not following directions in the job seeking process, you are essentially telling me that you won’t respect my organization’s rules, policies, and procedures. In effect, you place your own desires above the success of my company. And yikes, that is not a person I want to spend my time talking to—let alone a person I want to hire.

However, that doesn’t mean that you are powerless. Here are three examples of how people successfully got around my company’s rules for contacting us about informational interviews, internships, and full time positions.

  • Use someone in my network as an “in”. If you can get introduced to me through one of my colleagues, there is a MUCH better chance that I’ll agree to have coffee with you. Even if I’m not at all interested, I feel a sense of obligation to my network—and once you have me in your grasp, you can unleash your sustainability magnetism and make me forget all about my reluctance.
  • Run into me at an event. Through my company’s blog, e-newsletter, my Twitter account, and our Facebook group, you can pretty much figure out where I’m going to be. And since I hate standing awkwardly alone, a public event is a great place to corner me and chat me up about your sustainability goals.
  • Offer to do me a favor. Can you introduce me to someone that I might want to meet? Connect me to an organization that might want my services? Get my company free publicity? The sad truth is that the job seeking process is very one-sided. You take, and I give (or at least, that’s the way it feels on this side of the equation). If you can help even that balance, I’ll be more amenable to seeing how I can help you.

I’m sure there are other common mistakes, but these three are the ones that push my buttons the most frequently. Talking to other organizations, I fear I’m not alone. So do us all a favor (including yourself) and take a harsh look at your job-search process and see if you are committing any of these mistakes. They are easy to rectify, and will drastically improve your chance of landing your next position in the sustainability industry.

What do you think about the "mistakes" Jennifer mentioned? Let us know in the comments below!