Harvesting the fruit begins with finding the tree

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Getting started with, or ramping up sustainability initiatives can be a complex process. In a field teeming with ideas and options but perpetually short on funds, capacity, or clear guidance, emphasis has largely been placed on tackling initiatives considered to be on the low-hanging branches of sustainability. Yet even taking on these small-scale, incremental efforts presumes that there has been at least a basic understanding of and support for pursuing sustainability in the first place. It requires that enough people have found the tree, gathered round, and agree that not only do the fruits appear safe enough to harvest but they are ready to work together to make it happen. In other words, moving forward with even the most basic elements of sustainability may depend to a large extent on first achieving a certain level of buy-in into a concept that has traditionally struggled to define itself.

Unequal parts art, science, charisma, and compelling vision, communication may be one of the most important, and yet vastly underdeveloped, tools in the toolbox of sustainability. The lack of effective messaging in many ways is understandable. Rarely an isolated activity that can be easily seen, evaluated and understood, sustainability may more accurately be considered as an overall concept or framework, manifested through a purposeful combination of factors with an intended outcome to enhance and/or protect social, environmental, and economic conditions. While generally supported in theory (i.e. do no harm; make life better), contextual variation of initiatives, absence of a tangible “it”, and a range of messages emphasizing everything from polar bears to canvas bags have contributed to ambiguity and may in some cases dilute the comprehensiveness emblematic of sustainability efforts.

In a world of budget cuts, competing interests, and partisan divides, issues that lack clear, consistent, unifying, and accurate messages are likely at greatest risk to get left behind, or at the very least severely short-changed – at all levels of government. At a recent summit hosted by the Department of Energy for SEP and EECBG grantees speakers touted the value of effective communication and quantifiable results as strategies that will continue to rise in importance in the face of dwindling federal resources. In one session leaders were encouraged to focus on efforts to evaluate, measure, and verify energy efficiency impacts in order to gain the confidence of private investors and encourage public buy-in.  Key take-away’s from other sessions centered on the need for greater transparency, broad partnerships, behavior change, information sharing, and effective messaging. The need for more effective communication strategies is not necessarily a new topic, though it is one that has been gaining increased interest at the federal level. In November the U.S. EPA hosted a workshop entitled “The Power of Information to Motivate Change: Communicating the Energy Efficiency of Today’s Commercial Buildings” to bring together industry, government, and utilities to discuss important strategies such as benchmarking and disclosure to catalyze efficiency efforts.

Despite financial challenges cities are increasingly moving forward with sustainability efforts and gaining support by demonstrating the wide range of benefits – including cost savings and job creation – intrinsic to many initiatives. While many have been successful at gathering partners around the tree and sampling the fruit, broadening and sustaining support will likely continue to be an ongoing challenge into the near future. Absent financial support from federal, state, or internal budgets are local governments ready to communicate their way towards more sustainable communities and regions? How is your city communicating the concept of, and your efforts around, sustainability? Post a comment or send your experiences to sustainability@nlc.org.