Part 5: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

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Part 5: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

This is the fifth of 6 articles in a series… an answer to questions I kept receiving from friends, “Adam, what do you actually do everyday as a sustainability professional?”  The first post covered sustainability strategy.  The second  covered planning.  The third covered training.  The fourth covered project management.  This one covers implementation.  And the final article covers  marketing.


Part 4: Don’t Be Afraid…
into a Dumpster Now and Then

The only mixed feelings that I have about implementing projects — doing the daily tasks — are related to two things:

  1. Efficiency of my time, and
  2. Good financial planning.

But those concerns — once understood — become merely details to manage once you experience two powerful benefits of getting your hands dirty — figuratively… and literally:

  1. Real-world understanding, and
  2. Incredible rapport

I can’ t possibly describe all of the different projects I’ve worked on… and this portion of the job will look different EVERY time — depending on your company and your project.

But what I can do is (what I do best) help you understand the various components of the decision-making process.

Benefit #1 — Thinking vs. Knowing

I’ve found that I can either get my hands dirty… or I can get my reputation dirty — a simple choice.

I’ve touched on this topic both in Part 2: Planning and Part 3: Training.

Getting out in the field, and testing my theories in real-world situations… is the single best way to save myself and my company time and money.

To better comprehend… I always look for opportunities to physically visit a store and see, feel, hear, and even smell how what I’m proposing will impact 3 things — people, profits, and the planet.

  1. Does it maintain or improve our customer experience, associate work environment, and community well-being?
  2. Does it create any additional risks to satisfaction, productivity, sales, costs, etc. we didn’t consider?
  3. Does it really result in an ecological benefit (increased diversion of waste, reduced electricity/water usage, etc.)… or is it trading off with other drawbacks elsewhere?

When we piloted our first at-the-pump recycling program…

  • I took a roadtrip with a project manager and our director of owned brands out-of-state to look at existing programs — touching everything and taking photos
  • I toured multiple sorting facilities with our corporate facilities manager — making sure we knew what would happen with the materials after they left our site
  • I personally put together 2 different styles of recycling bins out of the box — to understand labor requirements
  • I jumped into several dumpsters with rubber gloves on to help with waste audits — so we could verify diversion rates
  • And, I was on-site at our 3 pilot installations… punching holes, zip-tying, and lugging sand bags — so I could help create the training video for future roll-outs

Waste Audit

Not only did it alter the way that I looked at the project…

It made me realize the complexity of the project — and the critical nature of every small detail.  Being involved in the implementation:

  • Completely changed our installation method to prevent theft and loss in high winds
  • Significantly altered our signage by watching how our customers interacted with the bins
  • Clearly showed us that we were overestimating some costs, like added labor from bag changes
  • And, gave us instant rapport with store associates that would have to own the program after it was installed.

Secret #1 — There is no substitute for good old-fashioned work.  It provides immediate, concrete feedback.

Benefit #2 — The Best Way to Relate…
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

The second thing I’ve found… is that buy-in greatly increases when I get side-by-side with associates and learn what it’s like to do their work.

They meet me.  They hear me asking questions.  They understand that I care about the impact a project will have on them.

And they understand that I value their opinion and am working hard to implement something that works for them.

  • I take out the trash…
  • Run the cash register for an hour…
  • Stock shelves…
  • Do a ride-along with an associate during their day job…

Each time, I learn more than I could ever learn sitting at my desk.  And, each time helps me build rapport with the associates that will own the project — thus, determine it’s success — in the long run.

Two examples comes to mind.  Lesson 1.

I had been working on better marketing of our LEED Volume commitment at the store-level.  I did a store visit with a co-worker from Construction and looked at the exterior of the store for locations to put signage.

Without consulting the General Manager or the Merchandising team, we ordered plaques and window stickers that we thought would work — intending to test the placement only.

However, when they arrived and we did a follow-up store visit — they were too large and competed for space with new signage that had been developed.

  • If we had discussed with the General Manager on the first visit, we would have ordered 3 different sizes to test instead of just one.
  • If we had discussed with Merchandising before the first visit, we would have focused on the only spaces for placement that would be available… in the future based on their changing marketing strategy.


Both the GM and Merchandising were then left with the same question, “Why didn’t you just talk to us first?”  Not a great way to build rapport.

Lesson 2.

Looking to pilot test expanded recycling for customers in a new city, we brought in the two Supervisors and the District Vice President for that market.

They mentioned dumpster enclosure space might be limited… and suggested we consider what the storage would look like to customers.

Based on their feedback, we did site surveys — with photos of every enclosure — and presented it to them for review.  They chose the 20 pilot locations, and then we did the installs.

Afterwards, we shared a new photo deck of the installed storage containers for their approval.

They’ve never once pushed back against the program.

Secret #2 — There is no faster way to build trust with a co-worker than to get right beside them and do their job for a day… or even an hour.

Concern #1 — Your Time Is Valuable…
Use It Wisely

In a perfect world, a specialist would focus on strategy and planning.   Another on project management.  Another, implementation.  Marketing — and so on.  They would work as a team, obviously.  But it’s rare that one person can be equally talented at all of the above.

I’m not saying that I am.  But sustainability professionals are often asked to be — so we do our best.

Which is why sometimes you can find me:

  • Waste deep in a dumpster doing a trash audit…
  • Wiping down recycling bins for a photo shoot…
  • Screwing low-flow aerators onto a faucet…
  • Zip tying recycling bins for a beta test…
  • Or doing a site visit to photograph a store with poor energy performance.

The good news is… I love getting out of the office.  I grew up outside on a farm in Iowa, so any chance I get to do some manual labor — not wear a suit and tie — or just experience the glorious sunshine… I’ll take it.


But sometimes I am being selfish.

Sometimes, I’m not doing it for understanding, or to build rapport.

Sometimes… I’m doing it because it’s fun, and I just really want to.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that — but I am responsible for using my time in a way that benefits the company (and sustainability) most.

And, truth be told, having the strategist running off to see every cool new product — or to work on every new install — can hurt the company.

I’m not available to answer questions.

Or, I could be stealing an opportunity from someone else… a future owner of a project who needs the experience more than I do.

Secret #3 — Seeing the bigger picture means knowing the best use of your time (and skill set) for the greater good.

Concern #2 — Save Money…
But Not at the Expense of Future Success

As a sustainability professional, I sometimes want to go “the extra mile” to make something I care about pencil out on paper.

But, I have to be careful to make sure that any successful project… is a scalable project.  If not, I’m being a poor planner.  And, I’m crippling the company’s ability to continue succeeding without me in the picture.

Here is an example.

When piloting a new recycling program — myself, the facilities manager, and an intern did the installation of the bins… to save money.

After a few lessons learned and tweaking the program… it was successful.  Which meant a larger roll-out — our largest yet.

A part of me wanted to make the program look even more attractive to ensure it’s approval.

The first roll-out was in my city, and each installation at a store didn’t take long.  I could theoretically do it myself, or possibly get a volunteer to help — shrinking the labor expense.

Here was the problem.

If I got pulled away — or fired, or hit by a bus — the project would fail.  And, the intent was to roll this program out across the company.

That meant multiple cities in multiple states.  I would be making our financial analysis useless for future cities… if I did not include full labor costs for installation in this first roll-out.

So, although I could have done the work myself — it didn’t help anybody in the long run.  And I had to make the decision to pay contracted labor… to ensure our future success.

Secret #4 — Saving money is great.  Just make sure it’s never at the expense of your future goals.

I’d love to hear examples of your projects/lessons below.



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.

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