More Than a Badge:
What We Can Learn About Sustainability From the Boy Scouts

My recent meeting with the Boy Scouts of America and their suppliers radically shifted my view of what the Scouts are about. My impression of the Boy Scouts was stuck in my experience as a Scout back in the ‘70s. As a middle schooler, I joined the Scouts to hang out with my friends. I loved the outdoor activities and the pursuit of merit badges.

Fast-forward 40 years to the Scouts Supplier Summit*. In preparation for the Summit, I learned the Boy Scouts had introduced a Sustainability Merit Badge, built a platinum LEED-certified camp and training center, and were integrating sustainability into their properties, education efforts, and leadership programs. John Stewart, ‎Director of Corporate Engagement and Sustainability Director, summed up their recent pivot towards sustainability this way: “The Boy Scouts of America are developing the next generation of leaders. And in the future, every leader will need to contend with the challenges and opportunities that sustainability presents. Wayne Brock, Chief Scout Executive (equivalent to a CEO) initiated this program and felt strongly that sustainability needs to be a part of a Scout’s experience.” What’s also interesting is how the educational programs the BSA have developed mirror the skills needed to be an effective sustainability contributor in the business environment. The Sustainability Merit Badge is a great example of this.

The Merit Badge

The BSA’s Sustainability Merit Badge, released in 2013, is impressive in its comprehensive approach to sustainability, and demonstrates BSA’s investment in grooming future leaders. Through research and critical thinking exercises, Scouts pursing this Merit Badge cultivate an understanding of key sustainability issues, including:

  • Water use
  • Food production
  • Sustainable community design
  • Energy and carbon footprinting
  • Materials and product consumption
  • Ecosystem health

Scouts as CSOs

To earn the badge, Scouts conduct research and benchmarking, engage with stakeholders (with their families), organize joint goal-setting, develop strategy, and measure and report on results - exercises quite familiar to sustainability professionals. A Scout embarking on the Sustainability Merit Badge journey would first consider what sustainability means to him and his family by researching the topic and getting feedback from his family.

Let’s look at the topic of water use to play this out a bit: First, the Scout would learn about the lifecycle of water in his area. He would then benchmark his family’s water usage, and, jointly with his family, identify goals and strategies for reducing household water consumption. The Scout and his family would then implement the ideas for a month, and assess their progress. He would then apply what he learned to a global context and evaluate how specific water-conservation practices have performed in an area affected by drought, and offer recommendations on what he might do differently.

Following a similar process with each sustainability issue, Scouts and their families work together to develop action plans to reduce their water, energy, consumption, and food waste footprints. There are more than 2.6 million youth members of the BSA in the U.S., most of whom will work with their families on some, if not all, elements of the Sustainability Merit Badge. Imagine the impact if these Scouts then take these lessons to their schools, community groups, and ultimately to their workplaces.

It may be a surprise to some that the Boy Scouts would focus on sustainability in such a comprehensive way, but the Scouts have always been a leader in the environmental arena. Since 1948, they have been promoting “The Outdoor Code,” in which Scouts pledge to do their best to “be clean in my outdoor manners; be careful with fire; be considerate in the outdoors, and be conservation minded.” The BSA’s focus has evolved just as environmental policy has, from strict conservation to a focus on a more holistic suite of resource use and impact issues, many of which are addressed in the Sustainability Merit Badge.

At the recent BSA Summit, I witnessed how the group engages its broader community of vendors and suppliers. As Brock noted in the BSA’s inaugural 2014 Sustainability Report: “We are working to integrate sustainability at every level of our organization and are committed to developing the next generation of responsible leaders.”

Leadership comes from many sources, and the leaders of tomorrow need to be cultivated today. With the BSA's demonstrated commitment to sustainability, I am hopeful that today's Scouts will be well positioned to lead our communities, organizations, and businesses as they face increasingly complex sustainability challenges and opportunities — while still having fun!

*****The Boy Scouts of America is a client of Pure Strategies.

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