10 things I've learnt in my 10 years in sustainability
By Adam Woodhall — Ten years ago, I launched myself into the world of sustainability, and it’s been an amazing roller coaster journey. In 2006 there were some things I already knew—for example, that sustainability is good for people, profit and planet—but over the years, I’ve learnt many things, just 10 of which are below. These highlight aspects of my personal story and the wider narrative as I, and sustainability, have developed.
Serendipity is a beautiful thing
I’m standing in the beautiful ballroom of the Leeds Club, and I’m tingling with excitement. It’s six weeks after An Inconvenient Truth was premiered, and I’m about to launch my own specialist employee engagement consultancy, PeopleProfitPlanet. Serendipity has smiled on me, and the day before, the seminal Stern Review on the economics of climate change was launched. Therefore, I could stand in front of the assembled Yorkshire business leaders, hold up a national newspaper hot off the press with the front-page headline ‘The Heat is On’, and authentically say, “Being green isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also good for business”.
The interactive session, including a game called Carbon Bingo, received many compliments. Even better it produced my first big client: Enterprise Rent-a-Car, the first of many such as PwC, Southern Rail, Parcelforce, First Direct Bank and Brunel University. Even before I delivered to Enterprise, serendipity again beamed on me, as my first ever paid delivery, to Bauman Lyons Architects, was on 15th January 2007, which happily was also the day M&S launched its ground breaking Plan A.
You can't rely on serendipity
In 2007, there was considerable confidence—in part due to Gore’s movie, Stern’s report, and Mike Barry’s* Plan A—that both my business, and sustainability generally, would grow rapidly. They grew, but not exponentially. The easy answer would be to look at the financial crash of 2008, and the political failure of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 and say they knocked sustainability, and myself, sideways. Whilst the serendipity of the earlier events was important, and the brakes applied by the latter events unfortunate, there are many other factors required for transformation.
'Selling' sustainability isn't easy. Selling behaviour change is bloody difficult
Sustainability seemingly has an inherent logic, which ‘should’ mean that organisations adopt it enthusiastically. If only life were that easy. I’ve heard many colleagues in the sustainability industry bemoaning excellent business cases ignored and capital expenditure plans torpedoed.
Behaviour change appears to have an even more convincing wisdom: it costs little or nothing to implement, saves money immediately and people feel better about themselves. However, as it’s intangible and relies on humans, not machines, to keep it operating, it is something many organisations have on their ‘to-do’ list, but, honourable exceptions aside (step forward M&S and Interface Carpets), most are limited, tactical and reactive.
Fear undermines everything it touches
My initial hopes for the growth of my consultancy, and sustainability, were therefore comparatively underperforming by 2010. Now whilst the external situation was nowhere near as rosy as it looked in 2006, it would however be disingenuous if I didn’t have a hard look at itself, and recognise that fear was holding me back. The main elephant in my room was regarding writing: I often found it terrifying. I positively thrived when put in front of people, be it a workshop of two or a conference of 200, but put me in front of a computer with a proposal or report to write and I’d find any excuse to avoid it, which of course wasn’t great for business.
Fear of the consequences of climate change also permeated the public communication of solutions to it. The focus was too often on melting icebergs, the potential for flooding cities and similar catastrophes. Focusing on these fears, and getting people to believe they must be part of the solution, however true they might be, just meant most people felt disempowered to be able to do anything.
All you need is love... and a purpose and bloody mindedness
Whilst I was comparatively struggling to deal with all this, the support and love of family, friends, colleagues and clients was key in keeping me going. It also helped that I felt a deep purpose: to be part of the solution and to ‘inspire sustainability’. Furthermore, a bloody-minded desire to not be beat helped too.
Learn from 'failure'
As Richard Branson said: “Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again”. The success of the Paris Agreement at COP21 is arguably in large part because the climate change negotiators successfully learnt the lessons from COP15. Similarly, I listened to the feedback I was getting. My first innovation, in 2010, was to bring on board two business partners to drive the consultancy forward (and do the writing). This did lead to some great client wins, but ultimately we were too small, too specialist, and being based in Leeds didn’t help, so I sold the business to a larger London based consultancy and made a new beginning in the big smoke.
Action creates belief
I started my career in sustainability because I believed in it, and so acted based on that belief. It was logical therefore to look to create belief in others, so they would act. Back in 2006 that was everybody’s theory of change. I slowly and somewhat painfully discovered, that for most people, most of the time, the opposite is true; action is what creates belief. Therefore, when working with consultancy clients, and myself, creating action is now what I focus on.
Empowering change is possible: set an intention and JFDI**
In 2015 I started a new full time job at a Carbon Smart and I was supported to write a guidebook called Empower Change. It wasn’t easy, but with a bit of that bloody mindedness, I gritted my teeth and launched it to widespread approval. I’d felt genuinely empowered by my boss. I still found writing painful, but now it was more like stabbing the bottom of my foot with a pin, rather than stabbing my eye with a pin like it was before.
By 2016 I’d become freelance and it didn’t like feel a stupid idea that I could write regularly. So, I set myself an intention to write an article every week about anything, which took my fancy, and found that it was flowing easily. To support the launch of Empower Change in 2015, I’d written an article for free for Ethical Performance magazine (which I hadn’t found easy!). As I was getting into the habit of JFDI’ing, I thought it was a good idea to have a Skype with their new Managing Editor. We got on famously, and having seen my Empower Change article, he asked me to write another one, and this time offered to pay me. Magically within six weeks of setting my intention, I was being paid to write, as I continue to be. By taking action, I now have belief in my ability to write, and you’ll be pleased to know that no pins were felt whilst writing this article; just the opposite in fact: I’ve enjoyed myself!
Sustainability can be entertaining
At around the same time as starting my surprising new career as a writer and journalist, I more intentionally did a Sustainable Stand Up course. My theory was that sustainability could be a bit lighter, and whilst public speaking didn’t present me with any issues, making people intentionally laugh was a new edge. Again, the standing up bit didn’t scare me, but the sitting at a blank Word document knowing I needed to create a routine scared me stiff, and I initially froze. Fortunately, I got over it quickly, and once I got flowing I even made myself laugh when writing my ‘Star Wars and Sustainability’ comedy routine, as it did for those watching its first performances, including the paying gigs.
There is a revolution happening
Whilst a mini-revolution has happened in my career, with me unexpectedly adding writer and entertainer to my CV, the far more important revolution has happened in sustainability. To name just two recent game changers, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement was ratified. The most significant transformation for me though is in renewables, with them now making up half of net electricity capacity added last year.
This didn’t happen because people ‘believed’ they needed to change, mainly it was because countless individuals and organisations took action. My intention is continue taking action to be part of the revolution.
* Mike: I know that Plan A has been delivered by a myriad of people, but as you’ve been such a shining light for our industry and to me personally (thanks once again for hosting my business breakfast at M&S HQ in 2010, and writing the Empower Change testimonial in 2015), that I hope you don’t mind me focusing on you?!
** Just F**king Do It
Adam Woodhall is a writer, facilitator, connector and consultant. He has been in sustainability for 10 years working with dozens of organisations and thousands of individuals supporting them to become environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. He is also the author of the well-received guide, 'Empower Change'. Over the last 10 years he has worked with over sixty organisations, including PwC, HS1, Wessex Water, Network Rail, The Jockey Club, University of Westminster, Warburtons Bakery, First Direct Bank, NFU Mutual Insurance, Aegis Media, NG Bailey Construction, East Riding NHS, Parcelforce, Southern Railway, Allianz Insurance, Royal Mail, Go-Ahead Group and Pannone Law.