By: Cheryl Kollin, Livability Project
When I mention in casual conversation that I work with “sustainable” organizations, I typically get puzzled, deer-in-the-headlights responses. Sometimes I swap the “s” word with, “livable” or “green”, but still the response is generally the same — confusion. Some people, of course, use the same language to describe their latest ventures. My conversation companion might launch into a story about making a lot of money (a.k.a. “greenbacks”), or describe his or her latest landscaping (greening) project, or even their latest house remodel to make it more “livable”!
But when I describe sustainability in tangible terms, like giving up a car and walking or biking more for health and environmental reasons, or shopping at local farmers’ markets to keep money in our community, or switching my utility company to support alternative energy like wind power—most people nod knowingly and share their own story about their lifestyle and business choices. Of course it’s easier to talk to people in Bethesda, a progressive community in the Washington DC Metro Area.
Livability Project defines a sustainable community as one that is economically viable, environmentally healthy and which reflects quality of life. Communities and cities reach this state only by bringing together the diverse stakeholders needed for unified, long-lasting change. The Partners for Livable Communities adds to that definition, “social stability and equity, educational opportunity, cultural, entertainment and recreation”. With these altruistic goals, why isn’t every community embracing sustainable initiatives? Why is it so hard to change?
Unifying fragmented initiatives
I recently interviewed some key players engaged in their own community’s sustainability efforts and heard a reoccurring theme—there was a lack of coordination between environmental, social and economic initiatives. One long-time activist in Baltimore was frustrated that even though “there are active green building, water conservation, and food initiatives [in our community] none of the groups are talking to one other—and no one is talking to the business community.”
Another interviewee believes that “there has to be a balance between improving the environment and earning a profit.” The terms—sustainability, livability, and greening, regardless of their subtle differences in meaning or emphasis all share a common understanding—that the environment, economy, and social well-being are all inextricably linked. The Institute for Sustainable Communities promotes that working toward solutions to community issues such as poverty, hunger, housing, transportation, jobs, pollution, public health, and crime etc., “requires an integrated approach rather than fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of the others”. The Institute also recognizes that “sustainability takes a long-term perspective”—instead of a quick fix or short lived initiatives that last only as long as a politician’s term in office.
Making the case for sustainability
One of my first assignments in my sustainable MBA program at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute was to present a convincing case for sustainability. Why should business, government, and citizen groups invest their time, money, and expertise in changing local policies, business practices, and lifestyle choices? If you are a public servant, business owner, or citizen activist who is ready to engage your community in sustainable thinking and approaches, here are a few ways to start the conversation:
1. Sustainability reduces your costs of operations. Everyone has a budget whether you are in business, government, or are a homemaker. Changing your internal operations can save money; improving your bottom line. For example, energy-efficiency improvements in facilities typically reduce energy consumption by 30%.Organizations like The Trust for Public Lands’, Center for Park Excellence show the multiple returns on investment (ROIs)—including environmental, social, and economic net benefits of maintaining urban public parks.
2. Sustainability raises morale; raises productivity; attracts and retains quality employees. In a human resources study, 55% of the respondents reported that a commitment to sustainability improved employee morale; 38% said that sustainability increased employee loyalty. Employees who stay at their jobs also reduce turnover and save on job training costs and become “ambassadors of good will” for the company.
3. Sustainability serves the greater good; by buying locally, we contribute to community economic development. Local businesses yield two to four times the multiplier benefit as compared to non-local businesses.” Author Michael Shuman believes that reinvesting in our local communities is sound economics. In his latest book, Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Dollars from Wall Street to Main Street, Michael offers a compelling case for why we all should reinvest our money locally and gives us new strategies with which to do so.
Donella Meadows, a pioneer in systems thinking, celebrated her fellow travelers–those many people and organizations who are also working toward a just and sustainable path for humanity. It’s exciting to see several fledging community sustainability initiatives emerging in the DC Metro Region. Newcomers, Annapolis Green, Poolesville Green, Silver Spring Green, and Green Wheaton join four-year old Bethesda Green, the first sustainability initiative and green incubator in Maryland.
What’s so sustainable about greening your livable community? Whatever term you use to move your environmental, economic and social agenda ahead in your community, there are compelling and tangible reasons to go green. This post introduces you to the growing body of resources and advisors to help you and your fellow travelers find your way.
Cheryl Kollin is the product developer at Livability Project, a consulting and education firm that helps community leaders build sustainable communities. Using the Livability Project FrameworkTM, the firm coaches and trains stakeholders across business, government, and civic sectors to identify and leverage their own community’s assets to create their vision and build a sustainable community. Livability Project is best known for its groundbreaking work with Bethesda Green in Montgomery County Maryland and Share Exchange in Sonoma County, California.
 “Advancing Sustainability: HR’s Role”, Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 2010. Accessed on August 17, 2011 at http://www.employmentlawdaily.com/index.php/news/hr-central-to-organizations-sustainability-efforts-according-to-shrm-report/
 Michael Shuman, The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.: San Francisco, 2006; pg. 49.