Back to the Future — 10 Things I’d Tell my 1993 Self About Sustainability

Do you ever wish you could go back in time to your earlier self and offer some sage advice?

In 1993 we didn’t have Al Gore at the lectern and we didn’t have Greta at all, the IPCC was only 5 years old, and the Kyoto Protocol was still an embryo under the soon-to-be ratified United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The payback on solar panels was around 90 years.

Our audience hadn’t been primed by a pandemic of climate-change induced weather catastrophes, droughts, and crop failures. They hadn’t been primed by global climate marches or the migration of populations. Greenwash wasn’t yet a mainstream thing.

We didn’t have green rating tools and frameworks — we didn’t try to measure everything we did, we just focused on good design, on designing with a connection to nature.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and it’s fair to say that much of what I’ve learned as a sustainability architect has been earned through trial and error, through exploring the less-trodden paths or the un-trodden ground, and with the help of a very small but very caring group of mentors from around the world.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the time for new generations of sustainability practitioners to take that same journey. Rapid skills development is now vital, and I’m sharing these lessons learned in the hope that they might help new practitioners take bigger strides.

  1. Money — It’s ok to talk about it. No matter what business your client is in, money matters to them because it enables their mission and keeps their business afloat — it hires great people, makes products, funds advocacy, and supports communities. Get comfortable with talking about money, and always be prepared to show the value of what you’re proposing.
  2. Compensation — your time is precious, you’re on a mission, and there is only so much we can achieve with our limited time here. When you’re being paid peanuts it’s very difficult to give 100% of your energy to the task at hand, so have the courage to ask for fair pay. Poor compensation is often an indicator that the ‘desire to be greener’ is inauthentic.
  3. Risk always motivates. A corporation’s activities are structured around taking risks in order to grow & make profit. So whilst you promote the benefits of sustainable design / development / thinking, it’s incredibly effective to also highlight the risks of both action and inaction. It primes the audience to see more value in what you’re proposing.
  4. Brand matters. If the sustainability initiative is not tied to your client’s purpose, people, and brand then it either won’t last or the market will spot the in-authenticity. Before you propose design solutions, be very sure that you’ve understood your client’s brand.
  5. Don’t preach. Ever. People take it personally, as though you’re passing judgement on their character, and when people feel that way they rarely act rationally. Focus on sharing facts from third parties, telling great stories, and revealing the benefits of what you’re proposing.
  6. Nature — Fight harder for her. Only now are we recognising that nature is the centrepiece of climate stability. Nature is perfectly efficient, and all of our climate action must draw a line to the regeneration and protection of nature. Nature must form the very structure of your concepts rather than being sprinkled on at the end.
  7. Keep it Simple. Whilst you should always be armed with truckloads of research, evidence and data to back up your proposals, don’t drag your audience through it all. When you’re on a flight and the cabin crew take you through the safety procedures they don’t bore you with all the detail — they simply and succinctly tell you what we need to know. We trust this approach because we know they’re the experts. You’re the same in your role.
  8. Beware the technical fix. Technology is rarely, if ever, the first part of the solution. There is a right time for considering appropriate technologies, but firstly exhaust the passive design solutions, nature-based solutions, better design & planning, management / behavioural / systems change. The current global trend of investing in carbon capture & storage (CCS) and hydrogen energy are examples of technical fixes writ large whilst we overlook a raft of more effective, simpler, and cheaper solutions to climate change.
  9. Blockers — most organisations have them, usually somewhere in middle management. They don’t like change. They don’t like innovation and they certainly don’t like sustainability experts who find ways to propel their business forward. Against all instincts — find them, make them part of your team, given them a role, and recognise their inputs.
  10. Help anyone who asks for help, without exception and without judgement. I get that you might be incredibly busy and feel like you can’t spare the time. But you never know when it might be the final piece of their own puzzle and they then go on to do something great — maybe even greater than what you will ever achieve. And that’s OK.

Obviously I can’t go back and share these pearls with my soon-to-graduate self, and to be honest I wouldn’t if I could… the journey has been enlightening and empowering, and I suspect necessary to prepare me for my next challenges.

But I do know that if someone had shared these tips with me then there could have been a few less sleepless nights, a little less frustration, and a handful more of those big ideas that survived the gauntlet.

I’d love to hear what’s worked for you? If you could go back in time to offer yourself advice (but not share the lotto numbers), what would you say? If you’re just starting out or are finding it challenging, which of these resonate?

Climate adaptation architect, striving to help tackle climate change through positive adaptation. Think. Move. Act.