Selling Sustainability

By Emily Artale and Hillary Dobos

There are skeptics everywhere. How do we, as energy and sustainability professionals, convince them that pursuing sustainability is not only the right thing to do, but it can also be profitable?

One approach has been to share the dozens of case stories of big businesses and progressive municipalities saving money through sustainability initiatives (think Dow Chemical, Interface, City of Boulder, City of San Francisco, King County, etc…). But, for some reason these stories do not always result in a massive buy-in of sustainability and sometimes you may even lose the attention of your audience.

And why does this happen? Perhaps these stories do not provide a roadmap that is relevant to the values, demographics, location, and other unique factors of the community that you are speaking to. For instance, although the City of San Francisco may be a good example of what should or could be done (e.g., 80 percent waste diversion goal!), it may not provide the roadmap necessary to sell your audience on what they can do locally.

To recapture the attention of your audience and to convince them that sustainability does have value to them and to their stakeholders, we need to make this conversation relevant. And we can do that by basing our plans, projections, and best guesses on data that is pertinent and specific to the needs of your audience.

Look at what initiatives may resonate with your audience by considering the values, demographics, services available, cost of services, and available resources within your community. Start by asking some simple questions, for instance:

  • Does your community have a history of progressive change or do they prefer to keep things “as they always have been”? Are they willing to change?
  • How willing is your utility company to work with your community in reducing energy?
  • What resources exist in the community to help guide and maintain change?

Use the answers to these questions to help shape your sustainability initiatives. But, don’t stop there, do your homework and look at the performance data from the entities and individuals that have been in your shoes to help define sustainability targets. Research, analyze data, question data, interview communities and professionals, evaluate your results, and discuss with your community. From this data you can tell what worked, what didn’t, what target levels were achieved, and most importantly, how these target levels were achieved.

Based on your research, consider offering a menu of options and let your audience decide which initiates most resonate with them. Even though all initiatives may share the common theme of sustainability, people may naturally rally behind certain initiatives because they support their values.

Not sure how to create a menu of sustainability initiatives specific to your community? Contact us: or; we can help define sustainability initiatives and bring relevance and insight into setting community sustainability targets.