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Sustainability Thought Leadership: Shift or Show?

Photo by Robert J. Pennington, courtesy

Originally published in The Huffington Post, September 13, 2011

What if your thought leadership got you very little recognition today but contributed to an incredibly significant cultural shift that made a positive difference for generations to come? It is an interesting question at a time when business leadership should be poised to jumpstart the sustainability movement, but could a preference for “show” keep the desperately needed “shift” from happening?

A article about Upward Spiral, the Howard Schultz/Starbucks effort to stand against partisan divisions in Congress, explores this topic. The writer makes the point that the well-intentioned, Schultz-spearheaded campaign may be too quickly looking like a campaign for Schultz himself, and that could make the greater cause less successful.

To quote the article:

Entirely pragmatically — quiet influence is far more powerful. It means that once people have been influenced, ways can be found for them to rationalise the shift to their supporters by claiming authorship of their new position. It means that things can change, because the authors of change don’t feel they have to get the credit.

Therein lies the lesson: no matter how worthwhile the cause, businesses must be careful about the way the message is crafted and communicated, and be clear on whether their intention is a true perspective shift or a quick show in the public eye. Especially for the sustainable business evolution, the goal is for innovative thinking to be taken seriously and to inspire and empower others to continue working together for the change.

The legacy of Ray C. Anderson, founder of Interface Inc., presents a good example of the shift approach. Only recently passed away, this “radical industrialist” and sustainability pioneer first changed his own ways and then inspired other business leaders and large corporations to do the same. Though Anderson did get media recognition and gain a name for his crucial role in the business sustainability cause later in his own process, that attention was the result of the many steps he took and the steady influence he wielded all along the way.

What does this mean for sustainability thought leadership overall? Can slow, steady and relatively under-the-radar steps toward perspective shift win the race, or do we need Twitter-worthy cover stories and press conferences held by big-name business leaders to reach mass sustainability influence? At this moment in time, I believe we need to focus on the shift over the show.

Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, is another example of someone who, like Anderson, has made a huge difference in the broader sustainable business shift. Though his name is very familiar within the climbing/outdoor industry and to those closely watching the development of the sustainable economy, Chouinard’s less recognized work in helping develop cooperative business exchanges will likely matter more in the long run. Take the Organic Exchange as one example. Now called the Textile Exchange, Patagonia and Chouinard helped found this group in 2001, and its membership today includes big-name brands and retailers, as well as supply chain companies, reflecting a quiet shift of the entire organic cotton industry toward more sustainable manufacturing processes.

Additionally, I’ve recently learned of some other exciting, industry-shifting work being done in a slow, steady and under-the-radar way. Consider either the Sustainable Endowment Institute or the Green Sports Alliance, and you will be amazed by the thought leadership and “greening” strides that have been made in just the past five years. In the case of these particular nonprofits, the participating individuals are not getting the glory of media coverage and fame, but they are instead collaborating and forming innovative partnerships for the longer-term goals of sustainability in their fields. With the help of organizations like these, college campuses and sports stadium operations are now focusing on more sustainably constructed buildings, more energy-efficient facilities and grander recycling goals. When one campus can claim a better Green Report Card grade, another steps up. When one baseball team cites 80-percent recycling rates in their MLB Green Track report , the competitive spirit drives other teams to follow.

Ray Anderson took the quiet “shift” approach to sustainable business change, and Yvon Chouinard and these two organizations are now doing the same. Their work has the potential to influence masses of people and make history, if not today’s news. So what if the individuals within any of these new, sustainability-focused collaborations don’t get the credit? The point is that their collective contributions will have an impact beyond what any 15 seconds of fame could ever offer.