Top 10 lessons from working in Sustainability for 25 years


You know, I just realized I have been working in the Sustainability field (first environment, then environment and health & safety and now corporate sustainability) for basically 25 years now. I have worked as a consultant and I have worked on the client side of the desk. I have learned lots of facts and figures, laws and regulations, corporate cultures and behaviors and many many many different processes and procedures for doing things. Over the years I also noticed some recurring patterns and themes. I have boiled these learnings down to the following top ten, presented here in no particular order. Think of them as “Mel’s rules of thumb”.

1)  The term “environmental management” is a misnomer. You don’t manage the environment, you manage people. You manage people by clarifying objectives and then giving them the skills, tools, processes and resources so that they can meet those objectives. That’s what an environmental management system is: it’s a system to methodically ensure and check that your people are meeting the organization’s environmental objectives.

2)  Every regulatory non-compliance event is a symptom of a management system weakness or failure. Whether it is a spill, an injury, an unhappy neighbour, or a late monthly report, these things just don’t happen out of the blue. They are all caused by a weakness or a failure in the management system. So don’t just treat the symptom; evaluate your management system to find out the root cause so it doesn’t happen again.

Every regulatory non-compliance event is a symptom of a management system weakness or failure.

3)  There are three main types of sustainability clients [1] the ones who don’t know what to do and need strategy and advice; [2] the ones who know what they need to do (generally) but require qualified specialists to come in and perform the work, and [3] the ones who need an independent third party assessment or audit of something: an asset, a system, or a report. There are other types too, but these are the main three. And the sooner you can determine which type your client is, the quicker you can agree on the objectives and get started on the project.

4)  There is a big difference between data and information. Information is data with context. And the more context there is, the more complete and useful the information and ultimately the data is. So don’t ask for data when you mean information, and vice versa.

A serious sustainability practitioner REALLY knows the sustainability-related laws and regulations in the jurisdictions where they do business.

5)  If you are auditing/reviewing a key performance indicator which is an intensity or frequency calculation, chances are the biggest risk of error will be in the denominator. For example, if you are auditing lost time injury frequency rate [(# LTIs x a coefficient) / # of exposure hours], you will typically find there is a greater risk of error in the exposure hour numbers than in the number of LTIs. This applies to other frequency and intensity calculations too.

6)  Some people are stakeholders, and some people are rights holders. For example, most Canadian citizens are stakeholders, but people from First Nations communities that have signed treaties with a Canadian government are rights holders. Know and respect the difference.

7)  If you are serious about working as a sustainability practitioner, then you need to know the sustainability-related laws and regulations in the jurisdictions where you do business. I don’t mean “…I sort of kind of know them”, I mean you really know them. Take the time to read them and understand them. Yes I know they are not that reader-friendly, but they are government-sanctioned rules of the sustainability profession and as sustainability practitioner you need to know the rules.

…having a diverse team minimizes the risk of hive-mind thinking and common blind spots.

8)  Where you can, make your sustainability project teams as diverse as possible. Not for the sake of diversity itself, but because having a diverse team minimizes the risk of hive-mind thinking and common blind spots. Having a team of specialists all with a similar education and experience will inadvertently lead to team blind spots which aren’t apparent until there is a problem.

9)  Trust your gut. If you are on a sustainability project or audit and your gut starts telling you something is off, chances are something is off. Yes, it might have been what you had for lunch, but more likely it is some of the information you collected doesn’t make sense or is inconsistent with something you heard earlier. Your gut will often realize it before your brain. This rule applies to all professionals, not just sustainability practitioners.

10) There are a lot critics out there who think sustainability management and auditing is fluff stuff. They think its feel good tree-huggery that adds no business value and is a waste of time and money. Don’t waste a lot of your time and effort trying to convince them otherwise. Let them go ahead and think that way. They will eventually come around when the companies that are trying to make the planet more environmental, economically and socially sustainable demonstrate the value of their programs. It will just take time.

If you have your own ‘lessons learned’ or ‘rules of thumb’, please feel free to share them in the comments section.
Mel Wilson is a Partner and National Leader, Sustainable Business Solutions at PwC Canada. You can reach him here or follow him on twitter at @mjwcalgary