Sustainable Business: A Matter of the Mind

Business man with sledgehammer
It's not just the tool, it's how you use it that counts.

What should a young person do to prepare for a career in sustainability?  John Howley, internationally recognized expert, educator and thought leader on the business of sustainable energy, recently posed this question to a group of green industry professionals on LinkedIn.

Predictably, many of the respondents suggested earning certification in renewable energy and other Green technology.  This reflects a common tendency to equate sustainability with technology.

It’s understandable.  After all, just look around at the world.  The awesome technology our species has developed over the past 200 or so years has enabled us to soar to heights our ancestors could never even have dreamed of.  Unfortunately, it’s also unleashed environmental destruction on a scale even we don’t fully understand.

Mind over Matter

It’s a natural reaction to blame the technology – and to look to alternate technologies to fill in the gap and save us from our own creation.  Solar panels, organic agriculture and the like do indeed hold the promise of a more sustainable approach to living on Planet Earth.

However, the most powerful force for sustainability we have at our disposal is not technology at all.  It’s the human mind.  And it’s our minds, not our technology, which will save – or fail – humanity.

It’s a Matter of Choice

Are you reading this at home?  If you are (or even if you’re not) you probably have access to a somewhat primitive but very useful piece of human technology:  the hammer.  Pick one up if you can.  (Or do so mentally if you can’t.)  Feel its weight in your hand.  You could use this hammer to build a home that can provide shelter and comfort to your family for generations.  Or you could use it to bash someone’s head in.  Same tool.  Same user.  How – and whether – you choose to use it follows from the thoughts in your mind.

We can switch to cleaner technologies.   But without a deep understanding of what is truly sustainable, and a deep desire to get there, what will it mean?  Like the mythical Icarus, we’re likely to keep pushing beyond our limits until we come unglued and fall to earth.

Preserving the Flow

What is sustainability in business but the flow of profits such that the company remains solvent and thriving?  What is sustainability in the world but the flow of life and the conditions it depends on so that the living communities on Earth – including humans – may live and thrive?

Personally, I think in the very near future virtually every career will be – of necessity – a career in sustainability.  We have finally reached the point where we can’t pretend any more that economic sustainability is somehow separate from and independent of ecological sustainability.  The technologies we turn to must then be not only economically viable, but must fit into the natural world in such a way as to support it rather than tear it down.  And that means not only choosing our technologies carefully, but also, like Icarus’s father Daedelus, using them responsibly.

Using our Heads

As marketers and business leaders, of course, this puts us in a hot spot.  After all, it’s our job to get people to buy as much product as possible, right?

Or is it?

Again, let’s use our minds.

Our job is to maximize profits to keep our companies and the economy solvent.   And in the new economy it’s in our best long-term interest to do so in a sustainable manner so the world and future generations also benefit from what we do.  This means we have to work smarter, rather than just mindlessly cranking out more and more product regardless of the consequences.

Here are some ideas for how we can accomplish this:

  1. Be honest with ourselves. Is what we’re doing really viable in the long-term?  If not, how can we start moving in a more sustainable direction?
  2. Educate both ourselves and our customers. True sustainability requires a shift of purpose and a shift of mindset.  It requires us to be far-sighted.
  3. Pay attention to personal relationships and customer service. It’s costly to gain new clients.  The better the relationships you have with your existing customers, the greater your per-capita return – and the more influence you’ll have over their attitudes and future decisions.
  4. Build value. When you can really prove the value of what you offer, you’re less likely to have to lower prices to make the sale.  Being able to command a higher price per item equals greater profits and/or less expense.  And if you’re selling a sustainable product, it places a higher value on sustainability itself.
  5. Use our heads. What business are you really in?  Are there ways you can sell additional services to the same customers?  Can you come up with more efficient ways of doing things?  Remember, few things are more valuable than human ingenuity and good information – and these things can often be sold without harm to the environment.

The physical world is finite.  But there are no limits to human imagination.  And that’s something that can be put to work – and profited from – in any field, technical or not.

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer specializing in helping Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into marketing, sales writing and sustainability, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.