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Emerging Municipal Position of Influence and Authority: Sustainability Officer

“Sustainable” is not the most inspiring word in the world. To paraphrase renowned architect of LEED and ZNE buildings, William McDonough, “what would your spouse think if you referred to your marriage as ‘sustainable’?”. On the other hand, if one is facing an existential threat, “sustainable” sounds like a very reasonable objective. Amidst a global pandemic, devastating wildfires, rapid fire hurricanes and typhoons, “sustainable” is sounding surprisingly good.

The position of Director of Sustainability or equivalent came into existence at some point in the early 90s. I think that I first heard it used at university campuses. Publicly, sustainability directors were referred to as champions for sustainable practices, but whispered as token roles, without portfolio or budget. Back then, it was often viewed as a position to point and “park” a growing number of questions, concerns, and ideas on the topic of environment, greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy. The job was a lot about finding ways to make institutions appear as green as possible at lowest possible cost and effort. For some universities, a green image was their way of attracting a certain brand of student and enhancing research grant applications.

Nevertheless, many said champions made their mark with sufficient management support and effective leverage of outside resources. Interface Carpet was one such courageous institution that made meaningful strides in reducing their footprint under the guidance and recommendations of sustainability leaders and advisors. There were other institutions that were grand at talking the talk. I recall working on a most exciting prospects with the sustainability director at Warner Brothers. She was a sharp and passionate champion, intent on building awareness in this well-established, highly recognizable institution. She was interested in covering the landmark studio with sawtooth roof, omnipresent at the beginning of every film they released, with PV panels. To that end, she assembled folks from the highest levels of the Company to attend a meeting about the project, including its WB president at that time. I represented a PV manufacturer aligned with energy service provider that would, design, install, own and maintain the system. The roof lent itself to a relatively simple PV design. A power purchase agreement (PPA) placed no burden on the WB capital budget. The meeting adjourned with everyone enthusiastically on board. Yet the project never went forward. The sustainability director went on maternity leave two weeks after the meeting. Without her to continue leading the charge, upper management could not see it coming online before the 1994 Democratic National Convention – revealing their true interest in the project.

Today the role of Sustainability Director has evolved significantly. Few places more than at municipalities. Climate change is real and here today, affecting cities and towns across the country with increasing fury. Countless community based environmental organizations have or are in the process of declaring climate emergencies to foster greater awareness and sense of urgency within their respective cities and towns. Sustainability directors have become the focal point for climate action. They have become increasingly influential on decisions and carry a good deal more responsibility and authority. They continue to be champions for sustainability and resilience measures, but more than ever, must also act as the honest brokers on all things sustainable. Their credibility and the success of climate resilience and justice projects rely on setting proper expectations, maintaining standards, vetting technologies, and companies….and serving the town’s best interest.

It is important for those of us in the “climate-tech” community to listen to sustainability directors’ needs and recommendations. They are closer to their town’s or city’s heartbeat than ever before. Part of our job must be helping them to be successful at theirs. Along those lines, I would encourage folks to sign up for the next Municipal Voices session through Greentown Labs where we engage with Sustainability Directors/Officers from different cities and towns across the country. September 30, 2020, 3 pm ET. Click here to register.

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