Jill Rosenblum is director of communications and outreach for the U.S. office of The Natural Step, an international research and advisoryorganization working with corporations, governments, scientists, and academics to accelerate global sustainability.

Monday, 16 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

It’s a beautiful day in San Francisco, sunny and 70 degrees, and as I write this diary for Grist Magazine I’m acutely aware of how rare it is for The Natural Step to get press coverage. We have an ambitious mission, a 12-year track record, clients like McDonald’s, Home Depot, and Nike, and a radical vision for the future (although to us it seems more like common sense). And we never get any press.

As The Natural Step’s communications director, I understand why we aren’t in the spotlight. Our work is quiet and slow, and for years it has served us to be working behind the scenes. However, what I am constantly struck by is the way the issues our work addresses — dying forests and fisheries, toxic toys, undrinkable water, unlivable communities — get covered in the press. The issues are typically discussed as problems beyond our control. If there is mention of a cause it is usually something being done by “him, her, or them.” We are seldom reminded that the collective “we” equals “them.” There is rarely, if ever, an empowering solution or alternative way offered, and the issues are almost never linked together.

Missing from these stories is hope, inspiration, connection, and information that can drive solutions and new behavior. This is the work of The Natural Step — to bring people knowledge and empower them to become part of a different future. The future we envision is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. It is a future designed to support people everywhere and to nourish and steward the planet.

Every day we make hundreds of choices that have impacts well beyond ourselves. We choose outfits, meals, transportation, and entertainment. Yet, when was the last time you thought about who made your shirt, who grew your dinner, how much or little your commute contributes to climate change, or what it took to produce the paper you read today? This information is not easy to get. But imagine how different the world would be if we could see the whole picture before we made choices, if we felt empowered to make decisions that were in the best interest of the masses.

Now, if you work for a large organization or company, it is likely that you are making decisions that go well beyond your breakfast and your shirt. You might be in charge of selecting a vendor, or designing a product, or choosing a new store location. Just think about the ripple effects these choices will have. What’s in the material your vendor is supplying? Where is it made? How long is it supposed to last?

The Natural Step sees these decision points as leverage points. Therefore, our work is largely focused on helping decision-makers inside large companies and organizations understand the system they are embedded in and make more sustainable choices. We also apply our sustainability framework to issues that are bigger than any one company or industry to try and answer questions like what is a sustainable material and how can the technology sector contribute to building a more sustainable future?

Today, I’ll be working on developing a media strategy for our high-tech initiative, a project designed to engage the influence and ingenuity of the technology sector in designing more sustainable models, materials, and tools. We will need to focus on making the linkages for people in the stories that we pitch. What’s in computer hardware? Where is it sourced and where will it end up? Who is using certain software applications and who is not? How many computers will go to the landfill this month? Can making more sustainable decisions save you money and meet your business goals? We say yes.

Tuesday, 17 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Today’s to-do list looks alarmingly familiar. There is a list of people to call, lots of project tasks like “finalize brochure language” and “outline book promotion strategy,” an area with “ideas” that I want to research (framed with lots of blue and red doodles), and my most dreaded, yet fixed, line items: “deal with pile of reading material” and “clean up email inbox.” Luckily the calendar is pretty clear with only one scheduled phone call and a staff meeting at 3:30 p.m. There is a good chance the priority items will get done.

The staff meeting should be interesting. Our executive director, Catherine Gray, and senior scientist, George Basile, are currently in Stockholm at a biannual meeting of The Natural Step’s international board. We are in the midst of ratcheting up our international body and I’m eager for an update from the field. I’m particularly interested in hearing about progress made on formalizing channels to facilitate better international communication.

My job requires that I keep up with all nine Natural Step offices so that I can talk knowledgably with journalists, like Katherine Ellison, coauthor of the book The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable. [Editor’s note: Here’s an excerpt from the book.] She is calling today at 11:30 a.m. to talk about The Natural Step’s biggest successes and challenges in working with multinational companies, a very popular question. I need to be able to talk about everything from the Australia office’s work with Toyota to the U.K. office’s new research on polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and biosolids.

For the six years I’ve been with The Natural Step, trying to keep pace with the growth and activities of an international organization has proven quite challenging. Not to mention keeping pace with the interest our work is generating around the world.

In addition to my daily dose of U.S.-based inquiries and requests, I get emails from people in other countries — Argentina, Mexico, Germany — wanting to launch initiatives and open offices. The energy and enthusiasm are inspiring and keep me focused on seeking creative ways to finance the growth of the communications department. There are just so many great stories to tell and new ideas to capture.

The Internet is easily the best tool we have right now for sharing our international work with the public. It allows us to showcase global efforts like the sustainability assessment our Japanese office performed for Matsushita/Panasonic and the New Zealand office’s upcoming conference. Which reminds me that I need to contact the New Zealanders to make sure I get event details on our website by the end of the week!

Many of today’s to-do’s relate to implementing the outcomes of our branding project. I spent the last year and a half examining and refining The Natural Step’s brand, focusing in on the U.S. teams’ immediate needs with the ultimate goal of sharing the outcomes internationally. The project took four different consultants and almost a year to complete — partly because our brand is so tightly tied to the word sustainability and the word sustainability is so poorly understood and defined. But that’s a whole different diary entry!

Regardless, we made significant progress in finding new ways to talk about our work with different target audiences and most of the project results are being shared internationally. I’m working with the Swedes on modifying the structure and design of the new U.S. website, sharing policy documents with Japan, and in August I’ll spend a week in England offering new communication tools and ideas to the U.K. team.

As our efforts expand internationally, we are witnessing the different needs and priorities of each country and the true flexibility of our sustainability principles. As an organization with a global mission — to accelerate sustainability worldwide — it is imperative that we have a strong international presence and focus. Every day we learn from each other, strengthen our team, and aim for more cross-country collaboration.

Wednesday, 18 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

During my 30-minute commute to work, I’m made aware of the propagation of multinational companies. On my walk to the 16th Street BART station (BART is San Francisco’s subway), I pass by the neighborhood Bank of America. Today I time myself: It takes 14 seconds to walk the length of the building. That means as I walked by it, 2,100 people used the bank’s global services, based on the company’s average of 150 customer transactions per second.

Across the street from the BART station, I see an advertisement for the “McGriddle” and am reminded that McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest toy distributors. I arrive at Montgomery Street station and walk two more blocks to the office, getting a whiff along the way of one of the 6,294 Starbucks outlets. I get to my desk, flip on the IKEA lamp, and notice the ficus trees from Home Depot aren’t doing well. I consider taking the company up on their full refund policy for plants and wonder if that policy extends to the other 40,000 products they sell.

The reason I know all these corporate facts is because The Natural Step has worked with every company I just mentioned. Part of our theory of change includes partnering with some of the largest resource-users on the planet — multinational companies and governments — in order to shift industry toward sustainable enterprise. We believe that these entities can and must start assessing their true impacts and generating different visions.

A favorite part of my job is telling stories like how the Home Depot’s senior team came up with a vision of “providing sustainable shelter” and being an engine for sustainability — or how McDonald’s global supply chain recently incorporated The Natural Step’s sustainability principles into its vision. We are seeing the seeds of change and it’s my job to communicate this to our audience and stakeholders.

However, talking about this aspect of our work often elicits a mix of enthusiasm and concern. I hear things like, “Wow! Do you think they’ll really do it?” and “Great concept, but what’s in it for them?” The skeptics tend throw out good questions, such as, “In a sustainable world, do we have multinationals?” and “What exactly does it mean to effect change?”

My standard response is always honest, which means: complicated. I offer that this is long-term work requiring education, innovation, patience, and trust. It’s an art and a science to bring best practices in business and sustainability to bear on solving global problems, and the key to our success is working with the sustainability champions and change agents inside these companies. I remind my listeners that there is no one person named Starbucks or IKEA. These are communities of people, hundreds of thousands of people, who work for the same organization and often move on to other organizations, taking what they have learned with them.

However, when we talk about our clients, we call them McDonald’s and Home Depot even if their names are Annette and Bob. This is a crucial aspect of our corporate work and a point that is tricky to make in communications. In fact, I received two emails this morning on this topic from my international colleagues. How do we continue our work with influential business leaders yet avoid endorsing a particular company or brand?

This communication challenge is not unique to The Natural Step. In the U.S. alone, there are literally thousands of groups and individuals working to move our modern industrial system toward greater environmental, social, and economic sustainability. As the movement grows, we are looking for ways to collaborate more and find answers to tough questions like these.

I regularly participate in efforts to create a stronger network of change agents. In fact, this morning I had a conference call with a group of nonprofit leaders working in the sustainable business sector, including Investors’ Circle, CERES, SEA Change, Social Venture Partners International, Responsible Wealth, Social Venture Network, Co-Op America, and Net Impact. The bulk of the call focused on sharing fundraising resources and strategies, and brainstorming ways to best leverage our efforts. From my perspective, our time would be well spent crafting some common messages for the public to help people better understand how their role as consumers can contribute to making this shift happen.

Thursday, 19 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

I’ve devoted today to research. Our research team is working on some fantastic projects and one of my highest priorities is getting the results of these efforts into the right people’s hands and minds.

The projects are all cross-cutting and highly strategic. We typically take on issues that multiple companies and industries are dealing with, such as: What is a sustainable material or product? Or to put it more simply: What is sustainable stuff? We see the confusion around this issue as an obstacle to furthering sustainability efforts and at the same time as a huge opportunity to move the field forward. Our goal is always to provide clarity and to generate practical guidelines for action.

What exactly does this mean we are doing? If I had to sum it up in a few words, I would say: creating pathways.

Take the example of our design initiative. I used to work for a famous architect who lived by the philosophy, “Everyone is a designer.” If you look at your own life in this way, you’ll see the truth in his statement. Consider the outfits you assemble, the way you decorate your home, and the meals you choose to prepare. Think about all the decisions you make in a day and the filters you may not even know you use to make them. Now imagine if your decisions multiplied by thousands. You put on orange pants and your whole office wears orange pants. You cook spaghetti and your whole neighborhood eats spaghetti.

This isn’t too different from how professional designers operate. They choose blue leather and reams of it is purchased. They design a laptop bag and millions are produced. The goal of our design initiative is to insert sustainability criteria into the design process at the very beginning, so that designers consider the life of a product from “cradle to grave” and have a clear pathway to follow.

In partnership with IDEO, a leading international design firm, we have merged our sustainability principles with best practices in product design to develop a useful set of guidelines and a methodology for designers. Today I’ll meet with Bob Adams, the designer leading this project. We are working on finalizing the handbook, developing graphics to help communicate the ideas it contains, brainstorming ways to get press coverage on the initiative, and generating an overarching, strategic-outreach plan.

For the outreach plan, I’ll borrow some ideas from another plan I’m developing for our Food, Fish, and Fiber initiative. This project draws on the needs and challenges of closely linked industries. It aims to promote a systems approach to sustainability for industrial-scale users of these resources.

Look around and you’ll quickly see how instrumental food, fish, and fiber are to our basic existence. These renewable resources grow in interconnected ecosystems and currently face significant challenges to their safe and steady supply. Despite the great work being done to address the problem, there isn’t much clarity for companies trying to make environmentally and socially responsible purchasing decisions. We believe the more clearly a vision of sustainable food, fish and fiber can be articulated, the greater the chance that businesses (and their supply chains) will understand and begin changing procurement practices. The food, fish, and fiber research initiative seeks to provide this clear vision and steps for action.

As you can probably imagine, developing the pitch for this initiative is going to be tricky. It is an incredibly complex project and yet has the potential to profoundly change some critical industries.

I also have a meeting today with Sissel Waage, the head of our research department. She has spent over a year editing a book titled, Ants, Galileo, and Gandhi: Re-Shaping Business through Nature, Genius, and Compassion. I’ve been working with Sissel on everything from the title to copyediting to cover art; now it’s time to talk book promotion.

The book will be published this fall and is largely a result of The Natural Step’s 2002 conference on sustainability and innovation. Conference presenters wrote most of the chapters. Together, they tell the story of how sustainability concepts and practices are beginning to permeate the economic landscape. It will be important to get some opinion leaders and well-known public figures to review the book. Our objective is for it to appeal to mainstream society and to inform the sustainability community.

As The Natural Step fulfills its goals of creating new pathways that point toward sustainability, my job is to make the pathways accessible and lead people to them.

Friday, 20 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

I could spend all day reading if I had time and a higher tolerance for bad news. In addition to reading mainstream papers and business journals, I receive daily online news from at least 20 different outlets, including Grist. Today, among other things, NRDC reminds me of their upcoming court battle with the Bush administration to protect marine mammals from deadly Navy sonar and ENN.com writes about the lawsuit filed against Nestle for making false claims about the source of Poland Spring bottled water. By the time I’m done, I struggle to remind myself to take Wendell Berry’s advice, from his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

When I read the news, I always look for mentions of the word “sustainability.” Though it’s a word we may use too much at The Natural Step, it isn’t being used enough by others, in my opinion. Which brings me to my first point — that there is a great need and opportunity to better define and “brand” the word and the movement called sustainability. It is an idea that hasn’t taken root yet. For groups and individuals actively working to build a sustainable future, whose success depends on people understanding and getting behind the concept of sustainability, that’s a serious handicap.

The second point of my “‘sustainability” word hunt is to see how the word is being used, when it’s used, and if it corresponds with The Natural Step’s definition — which typically it does not. At The Natural Step, when we talk about sustainability, we break it down into environmental, social, and economic sustainability and discuss the importance of all three. Because our work is systems-based, we are always looking at links among systems. We believe that without social sustainability, you can’t expect environmental sustainability, and without environmental sustainability, economic sustainability is almost impossible.

Our sustainability principles clearly lay out how we define sustainability, yet if you’re familiar with them you know that they’re a bit of a mouthful. (Try explaining them to someone in 30 seconds.) We struggle with this challenge daily. Not only does it limit whom we can engage, it undermines our fundraising efforts and restrains our brand.

Recently, I have been talking with various communications experts to get underneath what might be holding us and the whole movement back in our efforts to clearly articulate the message and meaning of sustainability. When I spoke with George Lakoff, a linguistics professor and author of Moral Politics, he pointed out that The Natural Step talks almost exclusively in “superordinate” categories. Basically, that means we talk about vehicles rather than cars.

Try visualizing a vehicle. Did you see a bike, a jeep, a surfboard, a plane, a train, or something I haven’t even named? Now try visualizing a framework, or a principle, or a system. These are words we us all the time to describe our work; I’ll spare you the rest of the jargon. If you’re part of the sustainability movement, the chance of you understanding us is high, because our jargon is your jargon. But if you’ve never heard of sustainability these superordinate categories will not only be confusing, they’ll likely turn you off. And depending upon where you work, be it in business, media, the funding community, or academia, you’ll need to hear a different message to be inspired.

As a sustainability movement, we don’t seem to be getting enough traction. Yet the issues we work on have an urgency all their own. Changing this dynamic is one of my most important and exciting projects and something I consider and work on every day. The Natural Step’s brand is explicitly linked to the idea of sustainability and ensuring that the word gets branded with the highest level of integrity and clarity is partially our responsibility. There is serious work to be done to make sustainability a popular idea, a desired state, and more importantly, to inspire people to change their behavior.

Success for me will come when my job no longer requires that I explain what sustainability means and why it’s important — when I can put my all energy into working with leaders and decision-makers to make sustainability a reality. Today I must interpret the concept of sustainability differently for every sector we work with, as there doesn’t seem to be a shared understanding yet. I talk to business people in the language of finance, risk management, and market competitiveness. Foundations need social change language, individual donors want vision and a personal connection, activists want direct impact, and academics want theory. We work with all these sectors, and when they all better understand their interconnectedness and vital role, we will be moving much faster towards sustainability.

I look forward to the day when people everywhere understand how the health and future of the planet is intimately tied to economic and social systems, and our very own health and future. That world will be a very different place.