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Learned: The Sustainability Shift

04/13/10 7:55AM By Andrea Learned
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(HOST) Commentator Andrea Learned sees a need for the media to tell more grass-roots sustainability stories, in order to make the possibilities even more real to both consumers and businesses.

(LEARNED) I recently started a discussion with my blog readers that made me realize we’ve got to start talking about what’s not being talked about.  No, I’m not referring to those challenging conversations parents tend to have with their pre-teen kids.  I’m talking about the amazing stories of people and organizations that have fed the business sustainability movement.  Many of those stories don’t get told.

It was interesting to see that, while my poll focused particularly on which women might be at the forefront in sustainability, the feedback I got actually raised a gender-neutral point.  If only those folks who have landed book contracts and scored speaking gigs are the ones we point to - we aren’t really making sustainability seem accessible to ALL.  It’s a fairly common marketing issue: a brand gets all hyped up on how cool its own product or service is, thinks it will sell itself - no doubt - and the whole thing flops.

Brand marketers often forget that with newer products or ideas, they are no longer selling to those who have been steeped in the culture and industry for years. Businesses that want to promote sustainability can make the same mistake.

And that’s why we need to publicize the work of Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx; or Vermont’s own Jan Bittersdorf, co-founder of NRG Systems; or Jill Dumain, who has done much behind the scenes at Patagonia.  They are all women who quietly followed their beliefs and passion and along the way made sustainability credible.  And, to be sure, these are names of just some of the people who have been moving sustainable development forward for many years.

A wise friend of mine recently put it this way:  In any industry or expertise, there are those working to SHIFT, and there are those working to SHOW.  I see value in both.  We need the high profile names, so that the New York Times or Fast Company will cover and promote the power and innovation of a sustainable business approach.  But we also need lots of smaller stories of quiet shift to catch the imagination of the masses.

Inc. magazine editor at large, Bo Burlingham, published a book a few years ago. Its title is: Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big. When writing, teaching and speaking about sustainability, we should keep that concept in mind and point to both the well-known pioneers and the lesser-known small giants at the frontlines of the shift. When it comes to sustainability, what’s not being talked about enough - is more than half the story.
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