The Business Case for Sustainability

We need a new, expanded definition of sustainability.

It’s no longer about just the environment. It’s about building corporate cultures, nurturing human capital, and improving the bottom line.

The number one opportunity and challenge for today’s business owner is recruiting and retaining the very best people. Today’s businesses are people businesses, and rise and fall on their aptitudes and attitudes. An individual’s loyalty, trust and commitment are won and maintained by faith in your organization and its culture: do you foster commitment, empowerment, lifelong learning and long-term sustainable business practices? If not, they’ll take all your valuable training and move on to someone else who does.

21st Century Sustainability. It’s more than green-ness and environmentalism. It’s communications-intensive and interdisciplinary, permeating organizations across silos and departments. It’s teamwork and collaboration. And it’s a “have to do” for many successful businesses, not just a “nice to do.” When the accountants jump on the sustainability bandwagon, you know you’ve moved beyond business as usual.

Bainbridge 10

In my book and media curriculum, “Sustainable Solutions: The Business of Green,” I describe this evolved sustainability as possessing five key attributes:

It’s Measurable. It’s no longer just theory. Sustainable solutions can be calculated: in dollars earned, time saved, kilowatts shaved, waste reduced.

It’s Systemic.  This is the opposite of silos. Sustainable solutions demand systems-oriented thinking and high-functioning teams. Modern sustainability will impact manufacturing, finance, operations management, supply chain management, human resources, marketing, and even investor relationships — all of which must interrelate, synthesize, and evolve in concert.

It’s Sellable. Gone are worries of “greenwashing.” You just have to back up what you say. Sustainably-focused organizations are gaining measurable competitive advantages over their less-green competitors. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) helps companies attract investors and quality employees. And a new generation of eco-consumers are factoring “green” into their purchasing decisions.

It’s Teachable. Sustainability is based on behavior change, not just technical innovation. Sustainable businesses are learning businesses, committed to continuing education, skills development, and social marketing.

It’s Humanizing. Perhaps best of all, 21st Century Sustainability is people-centric. Healthy environments, sensitive sourcing, corporate transparency, empowered employees — all create  and sustain human capital, the engine of our collective success.

The Case for X-STEAM

First of all, it’s hard. Tell a bright young kid today who “wants to go into marketing or sales” that he or she needs to buck up and take a pre-calculus class and prepare for the worst.

Second, we’re selling it wrong. STEM is an awkward, schmooshed-together acronym that does a disservice to its component disciplines and muddles the mindsets each one of them requires.

image:Matt Damon in the Martian
“I’m going to science the hell out of this.”
Matt Damon in “The Martian”

Conflicted and Confused. In my own reporting, countless Scientists (S) have insisted to me that they are researchers and experimenters, primarily, not Technologists (T). And they’re especially not, God forbid, Engineers (E). The Engineers (E), on the other hand, emphasize their practicality and hands-on approaches to problem-solving, “not theory but real work.” Furthermore, the Technology (T) guys (and they’re almost all guys) mostly claim computer science as their root stock. They really don’t soil their hands with gadgets and doodads. Their holy mission is saving the world one app at a time. And, finally, the Mathematicians (M), who rarely exist in a pure state, except in the halls of Academe, boast that their skillsets are fundamental to everything, hence they’re as hard to classify as they are to preach to.

Skills Gaps. Selling STEM is big business, however. It’s attracted tons of dough from foundations and those of us obsessed with engineering-gaps, science-gaps, and skills gaps. There are STEM Academies a-forming and well-meaning re-emphases pledged for schools and colleges. But in fact we’re not coming close to bridging the gaps: enrollments in STEM subjects continue to languish; girls and minority students continue to be drastically under-represented; and China continues to crank out dozens of engineers a day to our one.

So, why isn’t STEM moving the needle? Here are a couple of reasons.

Integrated Disciplines. First, despite our desperate need for the specialized expertise and disciplined training required to produce a fully-formed Scientist, Technologist, Engineer, or Mathematician, the winds of real business are in fact blowing the opposite direction. What 21st Century enterprises say they really require is broad-based, integrated skills sets – the ability to cross disciplines, communicate, learn flexibly and adaptively, work effectively in interdisciplinary teams.

Behavioral Skills. And this requires a healthy dollop of the out-of-favor Liberal Arts, and the so-called behavioral skills. A counter-faction now arises that wants to put an “A” in the STEM mix, representing the Arts. Their re-fashioned acronym, STEAM, is gaining traction. STEAMers regard the “people skills” as the critical mortar that can hold the bricks and boards citadel of expertise together. In the practical world of business, if you can’t share it, sell it, synthesize and systematize it, STEMmers risk marginalization in nimble, change-adept corporate cultures.

In short, you don’t need an “A” in your acronym to note that the Ivory Tower and the dreaded Silo bear more than a metaphorical resemblance to each other.

Experiential Learning. The second reason STEM languishes is that we’ve put the theoretical ahead of the experiential. People become scientists and engineers because they want to do things, make things, fiddle with things. Today, long before you ever get to make anything you have to spend years and years thinking about it, studying about it, being tested upon it, and becoming certified in it.

The spark that ignites enthusiasm and illuminates even the most exotic discipline is kindled by discovery and wonder. And it’s usually “hands on.” The true Scientist, Technologist, Engineer or Mathematician usually cites an “Aha!” moment which first lit that fuse. That catalytic experience may well have come from a textbook or even an inspired teacher, but in its transformative effect it was likely more an experience than an idea. It solved a problem.

We need to bring back the Field Trip.

Applied STEM. Or send everyone to see “The Martian,” that hymn to applied STEM that brings back the excitement of Getting Something Done with Science.

Expose students to people doing real work in real businesses, organizations, and labs. Show how theories translate into productive practices. Demonstrate the applied results of concepts, ideas, and systems. Get their hands dirty and their minds inspired. Create the fertile ground from which spring the “Aha” moments that can transform their lives and careers.

Revolution at Stanford. Even the traditional STEM incubators are re-thinking their approach. Stanford University takes a back seat to no institution in its ability to crank out engineers and technologists. Yet, on a business mission a few years ago, I heard first hand from Engineering School leadership that “we are in danger of losing the best and brightest” simply by putting years of mind-numbing classroom curriculum ahead of practical experimentation and practice. In a dramatic shift in its teaching program, Stanford has inverted its entire four year teaching plan, promising entering engineering students a hands-on project in their freshman years. Theory and analysis can follow.

Let’s call this experiential, catalytic, motivating process “X-STEAM,” where the Experiential (X) moment precedes the immersion in the particulars and theory.

Evolution at Home. My own X-STEAM Aha Moment occurred recently at a Seattle elementary school. There, under the auspices of an innovative organization called Washington Green Schools, third to sixth graders were championing their “Greening” results to a school-wide assembly and a group of rapt parents. Their substance was interesting, everything from tree planting to composting to recycling to energy management, but the affect was even more profound – contagious enthusiasm, advocacy, and passion. Experience trumped Theory.

“This is really just a stalking horse for STEM,” whispered one of the parents to me, “look how excited they are — recording, reporting, and bragging up their results.” So, there it was: experiential STEAM, with plenty of behavioral skills on display to put the message across.

And, by the way, all those calculations the kids did to get there – determining Room 16’s energy use per amount of fuel consumed by the basement boiler – those are called Algebra.

Why a Land Grant College Rules Pacific Northwest Clean Tech

The modest Wood Composites Lab on the WSU Pullman Campus cranks out the sustainable ceiling struts, reclaimed wallboard, and weatherproof decking on which we’ll all host our 21st Century tailgates and barbecues. It’s the opposite of an Ivory Tower: without a lot of fanfare, our land grant university continues to turn the mundane into the magnificent.

Best of the Brightest. At its Annual Meeting in November, CleanTech Alliance Washington awarded its 2015 Clean Tech Achievement Award to Washington State University. From among a distinguished group of entrepreneurs and innovators, WSU was chosen best of the brightest. Again this year, I filmed and produced brief video profiles of each of the finalist organizations, aired at the CTAW meeting and awards ceremony. My trip to Pullman confirmed and amplified what I already knew: the Cougs were doing sustainability before sustainability was cool.

Image: Hal Calbom
“The Cougs were doing sustainability before sustainability was cool.”

WSU owes its ascendancy to both location and lineage: the rolling Palouse and the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. This program of “land grants” from the federal government encouraged rural areas in particular to raise funds and establish “land-grant colleges,” which were tasked with “teaching practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering.”

Infrastructure. This mission continues to bear fruit today. Although we often apply the “software model” – garage geeks, widgets and killer apps – to clean tech, many of us today feel our sustainable future will be rooted as much in Infrastructure as in Information.

The stuff that’s researched, studied, and commercialized at WSU and other land-grant institutions is still the heart and soul of their original mission: sustainable agriculture, bio-fuels production, electrical power generation and distribution, energy efficient building design and construction, natural resource management.

Public-Private Partnerships. And the modern evolution of the land-grants’ mission – outreach, community education, constituent services – is offering real solutions in real time to real businesses and individuals. There is no “valley of death” when a land-grant college, usually in partnership from the get-go with not-disinterested private sector entrepreneurs, transforms an idea or technology from the lab to the land. The farmer, the utility manager, the irrigator, the wood products company have all co-conspired in their practical, shared, self-interest.

Visiting a lab on my recent trip I was handed a simple two-page flyer describing its mission: creating bio-generated plastics less dependent on fossil fuel sources. More telling for me,however, was the back page of the flyer: twenty or more corporate logos of the companies helping subsidize the research, and eager to participate in its results – a straightforward public/private partnership unencumbered by grant-making, public subsidy, and politics.

Hands-On. The State of Washington, and the clean tech community at large, are among the beneficiaries of this pragmatism. That Ivory Tower in Montlake may claim more research dollars and herald its status in the International Top Ten Research Universities, but in the hands-on world of clean tech and applied sustainability, its rural neighbor to the East runs rings around it.

The late WSU President Elson Floyd, dearly missed not only by the Cougar faithful but also by those of us media types that found him always accessible and engaging, used to begin many of his sentences with the words, “As the state’s land grant university…”

He’d then go on to brag the place up: citing on-the-ground innovations, commercialization successes, and applied research showing up around the state and region. Thanks, Elson, and you scrappy Cougars, for rejuvenating our roots.

And, if you never have to stain that new deck out back, thank the WSU Wood Composites Lab.

So Long Sam Johnson, Hello Hashtag Hal

Welcome to my new web site! is a more straightforward statement of how I work, who I work with, and what I can do for a host of potential collaborators and partners. What this represents to you, I hope, is an emphasis on what’s essential in today’s noisy communications environment. As never before, successful individuals and organizations are dependent on thoughtful, curated content, influential and fruitful relationships, and innovative communications.

And that’s where I operate: editing, amplifying, producing and publishing compelling content.

The Noise Challenge. Although Content is King – in all its mediums – it’s a monarchy threatened by noise, proliferation, meaninglessness, triviality, hype and propaganda. Ironically, I end up faced with the very same communications challenges facing my clients and colleagues: getting seen, getting read, getting business. To meet these challenges, I’ve taken up time travel: jumping from the 18th Century to the 21st.    I’m leaving the foggy streets of literary London, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub, the esteemed company of all those authors and books on my shelves, for a laptop, cafe and a latte.


Zounds! Egad! My Word! I’m a blogger. So what took me so long?

Therein lies a tale. It starts with one of my favorite aphorisms (and I am a relentless collector of aphorisms) from Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer and critic:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Free Stuff? Since I’ve made my living writing over the past thirty years, I always took Johnson to heart: you simply didn’t “give it away”, despite the demands of demonstrating your wares and the steady undertow from a generation who insisted, “Content wants to be free.” I disagreed with that notion for three reasons: first, things that are free are usually perceived to have little value; second, free stuff is often crappy stuff — dashed off, dumped in, inaccurate, slanted, manipulative; and, finally, it’s hard to build a business when you’re giving your product away. So, I’ve resisted the notion of producing “free stuff” using online services for years, and yet now, it seems, I’ve  had a change of heart.

Creative Conversations. To move the needle in today’s discourse, one must contribute to the conversation – and in this age that is in both physical/interpersonal and virtual/online mediums. While I haven’t walked away from cherished interpersonal relationships and human-to-human transmission, I am augmenting my world with a “Community of Content” that lives in the space we call “the web.” I want to help model, build, and facilitate an inspired, influential community, founded on the three cornerstones of powerful narrative storytelling, meaningful relationships, and discriminating editorial judgment. All of us, no matter what our affiliation or organization, need to be able to offer thoughtful, compelling communications that will justify the precious time spent reading them, watching them, listening to them.

Call me a blockhead, call me a blogger: I’m jumping headlong into this conversation, aimed at improving its quality, and I hope you’ll join me there.

Welcome to the Relationship Age. So long, Sam Johnson, hello Hashtag Hal!