Being passionate about sustainability comes with a lot of baggage. There is a lot of misinformation and opinions out there to cloud what is important. Those that are skeptical or uninformed constantly expect you to back up what you support and why you support it with evidence (more so even than politics!). Those that are supportive but not really passionate are all-for sustainability being your thing [but not their thing]. This has its own challenges because anything you think is a good idea or that might be helpful, you have to take the responsibility for, sometimes landing you the reputation of being the office “tree-hugger” – even if your motivations are anything but.
To me, sustainability is important because of the intense amount of evidence throughout different industries that show there are lots of problems that have largely been ignored as our economy has grown. These problems are such that they threaten the security and longevity of our society. Also, as a process engineer, it is my job to think about the big picture and the interconnections in systems, including but not limited to manufacturing, distribution, retail, government, banking, healthcare and utilities. This means thinking through the waste each of these produce, how they can positively or negatively affect their communities, the resources they require to operate, as well as their ability to resiliently continue operating.
Thinking about the big picture, however, brings me to the impact an individual can feel he or she can reasonably make. I’ve thought a lot about this since I want to help produce real and lasting change, but no one can dedicate their whole life to this pursuit and it’s hard to tell what will really make an impact – you can spend a lot of time on one activity that maybe won’t matter in the scheme of things (like focusing solely on recycling) or be involved in so much that the impact is really minimal.
There are also so many facets to this very broad issue of “sustainability”: water, energy, carbon, pollution, human rights, food security, agriculture, recycling, industrial waste, transportation, population, policy making, the list goes on… And all of them are very real problems we as “world citizens” face. What can, and should, we do to make a difference? I think many people get caught up in this question and the sense that this is much bigger than any one person and ultimately they settle on inaction.
However, inaction ultimately lands us back to business as usual, and contrary to this “little fish in a big pond” way of thinking, there are ways to further efforts in sustainability without devoting your life to the cause. For me, the ways I can best contribute are broken down into 3 areas: my personal life, the work environment I’m a part of, and the work I do.
Personally, I try to identify areas I can improve, the biggest opportunity at my home was non-recyclable waste, so when I heard about a recycling program called Terracycle (http://www.terracycle.com/en-US/) I decided to sign up to try-out recycling non-traditional items (cereal bags, wine corks, deodorant containers, toothbrushes). After working at West Monroe Partners for some amount of time, I identified a couple waste streams (k-cups and granola bar wrappers) that we produce a pretty large quantity of and decided to try to implement a small collection program in the office. Obviously, these wastes are not that significant, but it accomplishes two things – 1: getting myself and the office involved in ways to make recycling more commonplace and a part of the “norm”, 2: supporting programs that are trying to make a significant impact that require people to adopt them. Our k-cup collection is a good example of something I had to research in depth before even deciding if it was “green washing” or not, but it genuinely seemed like an up-and-coming program for Keurig Green Mountain to try to change their business practices so I got our office on board to give it a shot. (See this link on Keurig’s sustainability oriented goals: www.environmentalleader.com/2014/03/13/keurig-green-mountain-sets-higher-sustainability-goals/).
This has taught me that you don’t always have to be the one to initiate a new organization or come up with a great idea, all these ventures that change how we live our lives (whether with a new idea, technology or shift in ideology) start with avid “first adopters,” the people who spread the word and eventually get more people to give it a try. The iPod, Twitter, and hybrid cars all had first adopters who are almost as responsible for the success of those ideas as the companies/creators themselves.
Ultimately, it would be great to make a significant impact on our clients, and at West Monroe we are working on our ability to do that through our Sustainability Practice and offerings, but being able to help doesn’t mean you have to start big (like a “ground moving” sustainability consulting project). It can really start with a new idea or concept to try in your everyday life practices and adapting the things you learned to other aspects of your life (like your office or your kid’s school or your gym) and finally spreading the word to others.
Perhaps through these small life changes you might find a passion or a business opportunity related to sustainability, or perhaps you won’t, but either way there are many ways to actually make a difference and “get involved” when it comes to sustainability – beyond being the “tree hugger” of your office.