Part 1: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

Posted in: Uncategorized Started by

Part 1: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

This is the first of 6 articles in a series.  Roger Atkinson and I met in Kansas City several years ago at a workshop put on by the owners of Cafe Gratitude — great friends of mine.  Roger sent me the following Facebook message after a previous blog, and (although fashionably late) I wanted to respond.



Dear Roger,

Thank you.  I agree — it is a great blog!  Haha.

And I love every minute I get to spend on it.  Because I truly believe once environmentalists understand the psychology of influence, it’s game-set-match regarding every cause we fight for.

Moving on…

What DOES a sustainability professional (henceforth referred to as SP) do?

Great question.  I’m not sure.  But here’s what I do!

Every weekday morning, I walk 3 blocks to my bus stop, swipe my express pass, and read a book for 30 minutes while some generous human being drives me — and dozens of other people — to our offices.  I get dropped right out front.  (My past blog goes into how much money and heart-ache this saves me.)

I work for a private company.  Many other SPs work for a city, a public firm, or a university.  I know this because we all know each other.  We have a little “mutual admiration club” — or therapy group, depending on how you want to look at it.

Just like any job, it is critical for your mental health to (occasionally) gather and share war stories with those in your line of work.  This allows you to express your emotions in a safe environment.  It also provides context for acceptance and affirmation of your efforts…

Secret #1 — Have a support group, mentors, and confidantes.

Tell yourself periodically, “Hey, I’m not the only one struggling with this issue.  In fact, I’m actually doing pretty great.  Maybe I don’t need to perform ritual seppuku at the board room next week.  So… that’s nice to hear.”  Or something to that effect.

A Typical Day…
Yeah Right

Groups that I speak to, and colleagues interested in becoming an SP, often ask me what a typical day looks like.  And my answer is always the same.  “What are you talking about?”

A typical day for SPs is like  a unicorn.  They are difficult at best to come by.

What I can share is a breakdown of my task-load into categories.  I can tell you that (ideally) an SP would not be responsible for all of these… but usually we are.  I find myself doing:

  1. Strategy
  2. Planning
  3. Training
  4. Project management
  5. Implementation, and
  6. Marketing.

Probably more… but this is a good start.

I actually started writing this blog a week ago… and it grew a life of it’s own.

So, I”m going to break it up into 6 blogs – one on each topic.

Part 1: Love Strategy…
Because It’s Absolutely Necessary

Without a vision, a definition of what “sustainability” means to the company, metrics associated with that definition, and a strategic plan of how to achieve your vision over time… well, you don’t have much.

Working with senior leadership to adopt all of the above is the part of my job I am most suited for.  My personality type is INTJ (Myers Briggs) and Type 1 (Enneagram).  When it comes to the Kolbe Index, I’m a 8-7-2-3.  If all of that is foreign to you… I’ll just say that I’m a natural strategist.  And strategy can be the most difficult thing to do.

That’s because seeing the BIG picture — how things need to play out long-term — encompasses a lot of moving parts.  But if simplified into key steps, you can easily understand the major steps and milestones that you are aiming for.

This diagram is the best I’ve seen that helps in this area.  It’s an image representing what The Natural Step calls “back-casting” — like forecasting, but starting with a vision instead of pushing past data into the future.


But without that compass (to guide all other actions), “sustainability” for a company may never produce results.  At least none you can verify and talk about (internally or externally).  So, it’s key!

Secret #2 — If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.


  • Start with The Natural Step (TNS) Framework, then work your way to more industry- and company-specific tools and training
    • Seriously — go to the source.  Every book ever written on the subject is about a company that adopted TNS principles back in the mid-1990s… or a company that copied a company that adopted TNS principles back in the mid-1990s.  Save yourself the time.
  • Read the following books (in order)… before diving into the weeds.  Go from high-level theory, to framework with examples, to detailed application of framework and tools.  Trust me, you can’t go wrong.


For instance, at my company.  We started with the 4 System Conditions of TNS and tweaked them to create a definition that fit our company.  Marketing came in with a great suggestion that set us up well for future training — alliteration helps.  We called it the 4Rs.

We defined 4 initial categories that would encompass everything we do — not overlap, but cover all of our bases.  It was a starting place, and we tried not to get it perfect… just to get it in place, and start making progress:

  1. Resourceful — We will improve our building, equipment and process efficiency.
  2. Renewable — We will increase our amount of materials and energy derived from renewable sources.
  3. Responsible — We will strive to provide safe operations with positive social impacts.
  4. Restorative — We will work for the conservation of natural ecosystems.

All of our sustainability projects should theoretically fit into at least one (if not more) of these categories.  Then each category needed its corresponding metrics — for a baseline and to measure progress.

We also used the popular 3Ps when looking at each project:

  • People — We make decisions that improve our customer experience, associate work environment, and community well-being.
  • Profit — We prioritize projects by return on investment in order to achieve our vision.
  • Planet — We seek to align our projects with scientific ecological principles of sustainability.

That may seem simple enough.  But that process took over a year to wordsmith.

Secret #3 — Strategy is understood as linear, but every step is happening at the same time.

While this was happening, I was also: researching past stories of success, planning for current and future year’s projects, managing projects already underway, giving input into marketing and training materials, and getting out in the field side-by-side with associates to better understand our business.

That is not all there is to know about strategy by any means, but it’s a decent start.

I hope other SPs can read and comment below as to their own experience… as well as resources that they found helpful in creating company strategy.



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

Like this content? Enter your email below for additional Chapter Cheat Sheets from Adam’s new book and more...

Leave a Reply