3 Reasons Your Sustainability Pitch Is Failing

I frequently talk to people who are desperately trying to “sell” sustainability—and failing. Sometimes it’s a sustainability consultant that can’t drum up business even though their target customer seems to be a no-brainer. Other times it’s an employee trying to green the company from the inside.

In almost all of the cases, I can trace the cause of their failure to one or more of the following reasons. (And unfortunately, it’s often a combination of all three.) So the next time that you realize you’ve hit a wall in pushing for sustainability, ask yourself if you’re you’re making these mistakes.

1.  You’re pitching to the wrong person.

Employees trying to “green” their company need to find a champion who can lead the charge. Unless you are the CEO (and sometimes even then!), you simply don’t have the power to unilaterally decide that sustainability merits serious attention. But how do you go about getting a champion?

First, don’t talk to your boss about it, unless your boss is the CEO. Your direct boss is invested in you doing your current job and (while they may indicate otherwise) is rarely prepared to throw their weight behind your breathtakingly brilliant ideas – especially if sustainability ideas are far removed from your current job description.

Second, don’t talk to HR. You’ve got an idea that can benefit the company and fulfill your need for personal development. Their job calls for developing employees in a way that benefits the company. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Wrong! Some people will vehemently disagree with me on this, but in my experience HR is a huge stumbling block to sustainability efforts. They rarely want to share responsibility (just try incorporating issues like diversity into the sustainability agenda), and their department’s ultimate goal is to prevent lawsuits against the company. Not exactly a breeding ground for innovative sustainability initiatives.

Here’s the right answer: go straight to the top. Find a way to bump into the CEO on the elevator, or jump in the buffet line next to the CFO at the next company picnic. Join the same business networking organization as the COO, or take advantage of the quarterly meeting to sit next to the Executive VP of Manufacturing. These are the decision-makers in the company, and they will be in a position to move sustainability to the top of the priority list.

(Note: before you go tapping them on the shoulder, check out mistakes #2 and #3. You only get one chance at impressing these folks, so make it count!)

2.      Your pitch is too vague.

Please promise me that you aren’t leading with a line like “we should go green” or “sustainability makes good business sense”. And please under no circumstances utter the term “save the world”. Yes, it’s true. But it’s not helpful. Your pitch to the big guy (or gal) needs to be specific and tangible.

Try to see it from their perspective. They’ve got a dozen people clamoring for their attention, the annual numbers were due last week, and they’ve missed lunch three times this week already. The last thing you want to hear is some random employee (or god forbid a consultant) asking for your attention and pleading for a feel good initiative that isn’t core to your business.

Instead, try something like the following:

“Hi Mr. President, I’m so glad to run into you here on the elevator. I’ve been doing some research and have found that we’re spending almost $40,000 a month in electricity bills – and that’s 20% higher than our neighboring companies on a square-foot basis. By bringing in an energy auditor, we’re likely to find ways to bring down our costs about 30% and with a payback time of less than a year. In five years, we could save more than $600,000. That seems like a no-brainer to me – how do you think I should proceed?”

If you’ve done your homework, the head honcho will have no choice but to (at the very least) give you a grudging “that’s interesting, you should talk to [insert middle-manager here]”. And in many cases, you’ll get a lot more support, and perhaps even an invitation to present more information directly to top managers.

Even if you’re bumped back down to a middle manager, you’re in a MUCH better position. Because now you can say, “Hi Mr. Middle Manager, I was just talking with Mr. President about a plan to save the company $600,000 and he told me that you were the person to coordinate and approve the plan. I’m supposed to report back to him once I’ve talked with you.” You can bet that you’ll get the attention you need with a mandate like that!

Even if you aren’t in a position to propose a technical solution (like a lighting retrofit), you should be able to narrow down your pitch to something that is easily understood and quantified. Examples pitches include:

  • A 1-day workshop with the product design team to understand the principles of sustainable design and how our products currently stack up.
  • A specific set of training curriculum designed to help salespeople understand what they can (and can’t) say regarding the company’s “green” products and services.
  • A brownbag lunch for employees who want to learn about forming a green team.

The more specific, the better. People in the business world – especially those in power – rarely have time to brainstorm with you to craft the perfect sustainability initiative. They much prefer the ability to react and modify an existing proposal or approach. So give them the opportunity to put their finishing touch on your brilliant idea.

3.      You can’t identify an urgent need.

I’ll share a secret with you: the very BEST clients for sustainability consultants right now are Walmart suppliers – especially the ones that haven’t dealt with sustainability before. Over the last couple of years, Walmart has ramped up pressure on its 100,000 suppliers. First, it asked suppliers to disclose key information on energy, waste, water, packaging, and community investments. Then, it made those answers a key part of the vendor scoring process – meaning that suppliers are finding that their ability to sell (or continue to sell) to Walmart is contingent in part on their ability to track and disclose environmental data.

Obviously, not all 100,000 suppliers are currently hiring sustainability consultants. But there are hundreds (and probably thousands) that are frantically scrambling to get their data in order. They need help assessing their key impacts, figuring out how to quantify their carbon footprint, trying to optimize their packaging, and engaging (sometimes for the first time) with their suppliers on social and environmental topics.

Even if they are struggling in this economy, they will find the money to hire you. Even if their executives are racing around putting out fires left and right, they will make time for your calls. Even if their managers have never had to report to a consultant, they will fall over themselves to make you happy. Why?

Because there is a specific, urgent need for your services. If you can’t identify a similar need in a potential client (or in your own company), then you’re sunk. People will nod and agree that sustainability is the wave of the future and a valuable thing to consider, but they won’t make it a priority. Instead, you will hear things like “yes, but not now” or “maybe when things calm down”. (Hint: they NEVER calm down.)

So look for reasons that make sustainability urgent. Is a major customer introducing new sustainability criteria for its suppliers? Is there a fantastic tax incentive or rebate that is expiring at the end of the year? Did your major competitor just launch a kick-ass new sustainability report and you’ve got nothing to say when the topic of carbon footprinting comes up? Find something that will get people’s attention now. If you can’t pinpoint something, you haven’t done your homework.
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Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model.

  • Elsa Cabral

    Great points!  Thank you.  As a consultant who used to sell sustainability both to clients and in-house, and having now moved over to the other side where I currently lead a multi-million dollar operation as a decision maker, I have found that a critical failure is not linking an initiative to the current business strategy and goals.  If the great idea isn’t aligned and connected to the business goals for the fiscal year then why should I listen?  Everyone has their own expertise within an organization but senior business decision makers have to think about the interdependencies and the lateral integration required to achieve goals.  My best advice, know the business, connect the dots and learn to think like a business decision maker. 

    • Hi Elsa, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.  You make some excellent points!