Holistic Sustainable Development

Photo by Cristofer Maximilian on Unsplash

Holistic sustainability

How we talk about sustainability has real impacts — define key terms to manage risk and include diverse perspectives

To test this theory, ask ten people to define a “green” building. You will get ten different answers — and inevitably someone will say “a building that is painted green.” And they wouldn’t be wrong.

How your customer / consumer thinks about sustainability matters and determines how they will engage with sustainable practices — understand the psychology of “green” behavior

Related to the above point, if we want people to engage with sustainability, we have to appeal to whatever issues and values are important to them. Figure out what those are, find a common ground, and root your stakeholder engagement strategy in shared values.

There are opportunities for innovation — learn to identify them and take the leading edge

Sustainability is no longer a trend; it’s now necessary to our survival and quickly becoming business as usual. Real benefits will flow to the leaders, and the laggards will be at a significant loss when they (eventually) try to catch up.

There are some “legal issues” associated with sustainable development — but most of them are grounded in traditional construction and design claims that these industries are well-equipped to manage

I have seen very few new, “green” claims, and thankfully “LEEDigation” never happened; what I have seen are the same issues applied to new contexts.

The regulatory framework is rapidly changing, at all levels: federal, state, local — know the rules of the game or you’ll never be able to play

This is pretty straight-forward, but we need to know the landscape in order to drive the best outcome. This often means good old fashioned studying; I’m constantly challenging myself to better learn my craft.

Many government entities want to drive sustainability, but there’s limits to what they can give — participate in the process, listen and get involved

We probably all wish that the “government” could just fund sustainable development at scale. That’s just not an option, for many, many, many, many reasons. Yet at least here in Seattle, I see valuable incentives go unused — real money is left on the table, all the time.

“Traditional” construction contracts, and the associated insurance programs, set sustainable projects up to fail — learn how to revise and leverage them in a way that sets your project up for success

Unfortunately, the construction and design industries were not originally designed to foster collaboration, and many “traditional” risk management tools, including contract language and insurance programs, are designed to do the opposite — preserve the right to sue other project participants.

Traditional commercial leases do not address the unique considerations associated with sustainable, healthy and (most importantly) high-performing projects — revise them to foster collaboration, not litigation, and everyone wins

You can design and build the most sustainable project in the world, but if the occupants leave the lights on and the water running, you’ve lost the benefit of all that work. Your leases, just like your other contracts (because leases are contracts), are outdated and don’t appropriately address the current context or the unique needs of high-performing buildings.

So, what are some of the real risks?

With all of that said, there are some real, yet evolving risks that folks should be aware of. These risks are very manageable and they present opportunities to do better and add value.

In today’s market, greenwashing is one of the biggest business risks — know the regulatory guidance, and make sure all publicly-facing statements are defensible and data-driven

The Federal Trade Commission released the Green Guides in 2012, and they desperately need an update. More recently, the Securities and Exchange Commission has increased its focused on claims originating from, or related to, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting. And nobody wants to get a love note from the SEC.

The volume of research that demonstrates just how toxic our indoor environments are, is rapidly increasing — get smart on healthier building materials and operations that support occupant health and wellness

Pre-pandemic, the average person in North America spent 90% of their time indoors. That percentage was higher during the pandemic and likely remains over 90% as we continue to battle variants. Thanks to widespread information on airborne viral transmission, the average real estate consumer is far more educated on the negative impacts of “traditional” buildings than ever before.

The sustainability space has a serious diversity problem — firm leadership, in all industries, needs to start putting in the work, mentoring and elevating diverse voices and perspectives

Everyone deserves a chance to do their best work; and if you need another reason, the research is clear that diverse teams perform better. And we desperately need all ideas on the table to collaborate our way out of this climate crisis.

That’s the secret sauce

Actually, it’s a high level summary of what I’ve learned working and teaching in sustainability for more than a decade. If you need help or want more specifics, reach out via our website.



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Nicole DeNamur

Nicole DeNamur


Attorney + sustainability consultant. I write about how we can drive deep green innovation at scale. https://www.sustainablestrategiespllc.com