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Organizational Change
What Your Sustainable Brand Can Learn From the Lord of the Rings

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the RingsSustainability isn’t simple. And when it comes to uniting a group of people behind a green initiative, things tend to get messy.

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Sustainability isn’t simple. And when it comes to uniting a group of people behind a green initiative, things tend to get messy.

Key to success is a single, shining north star vision to rally everyone in the cause. Whether it’s a common mission, a united belief system, or an iconic charismatic leader, this sense of a common bond is crucial to getting people involved.

Just as important, however, is understanding the idiosyncrasies of the parties being united. The Natural Step, a champion of north star thinking, also acknowledges that “…change is about creating and maintaining momentum in& dynamic human structures …” That is, you don’t just need the one ring to unite — you also need to understand the unique challenges of all the elves, humans and dwarves being united.

One Sustainable Brand, Many Paths

When it comes to pulling an incredibly diverse group of people together behind a common vision, I always tip a hat to the greening of Walmart.

As part of that massive movement, the retail giant introduced the Personal Sustainability Project (PSP) for employees — a program developed by associates, for associates, as an outlet for them to embrace the retail giant’s commitment to sustainability as a business philosophy and as a responsible way to operate.

Far from asking employees to set purchasing policy or replace refrigeration systems, however, the Personal Sustainability Pledges (also PSPs) allowed employees to bring the north star vision to their own, personal level. According to their web page, “PSPs can be anything from pledging to recycle, to eating healthier or getting outdoors more. Since the program began, nearly 20,000 associates have quit smoking; together, they have recycled 3 million pounds of plastic; as a group, they have lost more than 184,000 pounds and walked, biked or swam more than 1.1 million miles — that’s a distance of at least two trips to the moon.”

On a local level, I look at the community-building BC Hydro is doing. The utility’s focus on energy conservation needs to appeal to a broad range of people — all of whom have unique barriers to participation. As Arien Korteland, residential community-building lead says, “If we’re asking people to dry their clothes on the clothesline instead of the dryer, we’re looking at a unique set of barriers. If we’re asking them to turn down the thermostat, another unique set of barriers. Changing lightbulbs, installing more efficient heating systems — all these behaviors come with unique barriers.”

Add one of the most common barriers of all — indifference — and you have a truly thorny problem.

Hydro’s solution, much like Walmart’s, is to 1. have energy conservation make sense on a personal level; 2. Introduce a sense of personal challenge to energy conservation; and 3. Incentivize participants with loyalty programs, unique offers, and — most important — by making them feel part of a larger movement.

The incentive element is particularly important, says Korteland. “This marketing is based on two primary principles — reward the consumer for an action, and give the consumer a good answer to their ‘What’s in it for me?’ question.”

Lessons for Ring Bearers

  1. One ring to bind them all — To be successful, a movement needs a common vision, charismatic leader, or shared belief system.
  2. Rings for elves, dwarves and humans — You need to appreciate that the followers of your movement face unique barriers to participation. Binding them means you need to design action specifically for them.
  3. United under the ring — Participants helping build your sustainable brand need to feel united in the movement. There is strength, and comfort, in numbers.