Part 6: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

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Part 6: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

This is the final 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 fifth covered implementation.  And this final article covers  marketing.


Part 5: Telling Stories…
Compelling Ones

I was not a good story-teller — by birth.  But I’ve become decent out of necessity.  (You may notice my attempts in these blogs to not just share facts or recommendations… but to tell my story better.)

It was with great stress that I learned my left-brained, just-the-facts, approach to life would not suffice in a world where marketing is absolutely critical.

Luckily, despite my resistance, telling stories turned out to be incredibly enjoyable.  Stories help me (and businesses with something of value to share) connect with people — existing and potential customers — on a deeper level.

Business RecordWeaving together two things:

  1. Details that people are interested in hearing…
  2. With key messages that the company is interested in sharing…

That’s story-telling.  And… that’s basically marketing in a nut-shell.

Know You’re Audience…
All of Them

One mistake that I made–  early in my career — was not understanding all of the channels through which sustainability marketing provided value for my company.

I thought it was just for customers.

Let me be clear.  When our  customers are truly willing to change their behavior — turning left into our store instead of right into a competitor’s… or driving a couple extra couple blocks — sustainability will truly be here to stay.

Until then, it helps to understand that critical value can still be created — for other audiences — in the meantime.  And that keeps the vision alive.

Here are some examples:

  • Municipalities – I helped secure a city site contract by presenting to City Council on our company’s sustainability and philanthropic initiatives.  We under-bid our competitor by $47,000 and still won.  The comments were incredible.  Communities care… and prefer recruiting businesses committed to doing the right thing.
  • Vendor Partners – I continue to be able to secure partner funding on projects because they value our brand… and the community recognition they stand to gain from launching new, innovative programs with us.  Other businesses care… and prefer working with businesses pushing the envelope in their industries.

I just learned this last week — during a presentation given by a member of my sustainability professionals peer-sharing group.

  • Landlords – Landlords who improve upon their properties are able to reduce CAM costs, keep existing tenants, increase rents, and use that as a multiplier in their valuation of their business — securing better refinancing or pulling in a much higher sales price.  The payback for landlords is incredibly fast… if not immediate… once they understand how to calculate and take advantage of these things.

Secret #1 — First, know your audience.

Do You Know Your Customer…
Better Than They Know Themselves?

I can’t offer a case study here.  We need to do better as a company, and we’re slowly getting there.

This topic deserves it’s own blog… but I’ll share what I know.

Loyalty programs — points, discount cards, etc. — are not about loyalty.  They are about information.

Loyalty programs help companies better understand where they can improve.  How?

By getting customer information — and lots of it.

  • Demographic
  • Geographic
  • Spending patterns
  • Contact information

Surprise!  Most companies that have been around for a long time did not do great “marketing.”  They found a product that sold.  Simple.

If it continued to sell, they continued to make it available.  A lot of trial and error.

Today, companies — great companies anyway — do most (if not all) of their marketing before ever offering a product.

They ask their existing customers questions.  Try to understand what “other” needs — or changing needs — they have.  Find out how much they are willing to pay for a solution to meet those needs.  Then… do they immediately make a product?


They talk to customers in depth about those needs.  They listen… not just to WHAT customers are asking for… but HOW they are asking for it.

  • What words do they use to describe their needs?
  • What words do they use to describe the solution they want?
  • How do they feel about the problems associated with it?
  • Who do they trust to provide a solution?

“Sleazy” marketers simply  try to re-package something they already have — and trick people into thinking it fits their needs… or solves their problem.  It’s disgusting — and you can find plenty of it littering the internet these days.

Great companies — which understand great marketing — go back to the drawing board and re-engineer what they used to offer to actually fit those needs… and solve those problems.

THEN… they honestly use those same words to communicate back to their customers what they now have to offer.

It’s incredibly simple.  But it’s not easy.  And it takes time.

They are all aimed at doing one thing.  Providing something of value — not for free… but in return for data to help them improve.

Secret #2 — Speak your customers’ language.

Tools of the Trade…
It’s All About Buzz

The #1 tool in marketing is — and always will be — customer research.

There is no website, mobile app, or guerrilla campaign that can overcome a poor understanding of customer needs.

Let’s assume you have done your research.  What then?

The obvious answer is — “It Depends!”  Go where your customers are.

But regardless, here are some of the key tools to learn how to use… and links to examples.

  • Point of Sale – Whether you own a store or an online shopping cart, you need to have some place to send people… once you’ve captured their attention, and convinced them you have something of value that they want.
  • Demonstrating Value
    • In Store Signage – Let existing customers know your story.  Talk about your people, your building, your company, and your history on site.  Use images and speak in a friendly (non-technical) language.  Visit any Chipotle.
    • Website – Most marketing messages are brief and focused on capturing attention… but to build credibility — and avoid green-washing according to the FTC Green Guides — you need to be able to send them to your website to substantiate your claims with additional information.
  • Capture Attention
    • Social Media – Not everyone is into checking out corporate websites… almost no one.  So you need to do something fun, interested, compelling, etc. that people are interested in.  Then, direct them to find out more.
      • Facebook – Great place to drip-feed tidbits of info on your sustainability initiative, and link back to the website for more information.  PepsiCo started a separate page for their Puppy Partnership initiative.
        • Sharing photos, videos, and links to other sustainability content are important.  All this needs to be interspersed within helpful tips that customers can use in their daily lives.  Otherwise, they will likely not follow you on Facebook just for the links to your website.
      • Twitter – Great place to do many of the same things as Facebook, but keep it as a separate channel… and create meaningful dialogues with direct messages and current content.  Whole Foods is known for a good Twitter feed.
      • LinkedIn – Great place to get employees engaged and sharing stories about the company’s efforts.  Provide training so they are aware of the appropriate use of company information… and help give them content to share and discuss.  Perhaps join groups like Sustainability Professionals.
      • YouTube – Great place to store company videos — private if for internal use only… public for higher quality promotional videos.  Make great link content for your other social media outlets.  Here is a video put together by CH2M HILL about their work on water quality.
    • Printed Media – You obviously want to create press releases for timely news.  But make sure to include a writing style and information that encourages readers to visit your store, website, or social media pages.
    • Television – Build a relationship with media outlets in the communities you serve.  Keep them updated about any newsworthy events taking place.  Being able to link to TV broadcast videos online makes for great social media content to share.  CNN Money has a Green Biz segment.
    • Events – Hold interesting events that you can invite customers, employees, vendors, community partners, and the press to.  Don’t forget to record, edit, and post footage and interviews on your YouTube channel… then link to them via social media.  Here is UnityPoint Health promoting their booth at the Farmers Market.

Secret #3 — Show up where your customer is already looking.


I am not a professional marketer.  But here is what I would highly recommended — they have radically improved my ability to sell.  Whether that be selling my ideas or my company.

Good luck!



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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