The Transition…Where Do You Fit?

The transition to a thriving sustainable future will require large-scale changes—and everyone has a role to play. “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time” as the Berkana Institute defines it, which is a useful reminder that we do not need to wait for leaders “at the top.”

Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, estimates that there are over 2.5 million organizations globally working for a sustainable socially-just future. Their work is not led or coordinated from a central place, rather it the self-organizing response of people seeing the need for a change and stepping up to address it.

Initiatives and commitment are gaining traction in every sector – over 600 university presidents have signed a commitment to reduce their institutions’ greenhouse gas emissions, in the building industry over 35,000 projects have or are pursuing LEED green certification, and even Wal-mart is driving change – working with over 100,000 of its suppliers to measure the sustainability of the products it sells, eventually planning to put a “nutrition label” on products so environmental impacts can be compared.

People are working for change at all levels. The following are a few ways to think about how this change happens and where you can take action:

  • Innovate from the inside: Help existing institutions to adopt greener practices. For example, Dan Ruben, a member of New Directions Collaborative, began his “green” career when he was a health care administrator at Harvard Pilgrim HMO where he saw opportunities to reduce paper use. He pitched a waste reduction project to his boss and got approval to lead the effort, which resulted in major paper use reduction and cost savings. Dan went on to tackle even bigger “greening” tasks in new jobs such as leading a coalition to green the 2004 Democratic National Convention held in Boston and more recently the hotel sector in Boston.
  • Be a social entrepreneur: Invent new “forms” and new technologies that help people and organizations become more sustainable. For example, Zip Car helped consumers to re-think car ownership with its business model of car sharing: they make it easy to rent a car by the hour in your neighborhood rather than owning a car. Research shows people sharing cars reduce their vehicle miles traveled by 44%, plus there are fewer cars to park in urban areas. For even more examples, check out the list of award recipients of the Skoll Foundation’s annual awards for social entrepreneurs. Leaders are emerging in many places, each combining creativity with social purpose in unique ways.
  • Cross-pollinate and spread the best solutions: Help accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices by connecting new ideas to those who could adopt them or help them succeed. For example, business networking associations like Business for Social Responsibility groups play an important role in convening conferences where business leaders can share ideas. The Investors Circle provides a forum where upcoming socially-responsible companies can connect with angel investors to secure the resources to support their growth.
  • Be the change: In each choice we make, we can embody the values of the world we want to create, such as buying food that is grown organically, driving a fuel-efficient car, or investing our money in socially-responsible companies or community loan funds serving low-income communities. We become the customers for companies and organizations trying to do the right thing.

Positive feedback loops are created when people pursuing actions reinforce each other. For example, established companies or government agencies adopt the new technologies invented by entrepreneurs…or networking groups feature the case studies of those making change in established institutions to inspire others.

In which of these ways have you helped to bring about the transition? How might you collaborate with others to have even more of an influence?

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