Holistic Sustainable Development
Everything you wanted to know but were too afraid to ask
Maybe that’s a bit much, but hopefully it got your attention. Around 2012, I wanted to drive greater collaboration among the building design and construction industries, to foster meaningful, sustainable innovation at scale. I created the course I still teach at the University of Washington, Department of Real Estate, entitled Risk and Reward in Sustainable Development.
Sustainable development has evolved significantly since 2014, and so has the course. In this post, I share the most important lessons I’ve learned — many of them from the amazing guest speakers who have volunteered their time and shared their talents with our students.
The most important part is that, as sustainability increasingly becomes business as usual, you can apply these lessons to add value to your organization.
While these aspects were developed in the context of sustainable development, they have broad applicability across industries.
The trick is learning to identify potential risks, so you can translate them into opportunities.
Everyone loves to talk about risk because it makes them sound smart and it means they don’t actually have to do anything. It’s “too risky” so don’t touch it. In the course of my career, I’ve found that folks use it as a permission slip to keep carrying on with old ways. Well, those “old ways” got us into this climate mess, so it’s time to innovate — or at least think of a better excuse. This video explains two ways that I help my clients think about risk:
In my experience, as a lawyer, sustainability consultant and educator, the following lessons on holistic sustainability are what you need to know to succeed in this ever-evolving industry.
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.
Undefined terms and loose language present some of the biggest risks and, in my experience litigating construction and insurance claims, are at the root of most lawsuits. If you want to learn more, watch this short video on the importance of clear communication:
Additionally, we all bring our assumptions and life experiences to how we use language and define terms. Including diverse voices drives better, clearer and more inclusive language.
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.
Watch this video to learn how to apply these strategies to climate change work:
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.
Companies that start small and start early will be in a much better position over the long haul.
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 trick is to study and understand the historical themes, so you can identify how they will be applied to the current context. Because almost everything is cyclical — here’s one example: at one time, we only built with wood products, then steel / concrete as we wanted to build taller, and now we are again pushing for wood products as we better understand (and measure) the impacts of embodied carbon.
Best practices like clear communication, a more integrated process, and education of all team members (early and often) are still some of the best ways to manage evolving legal risks.
And here’s a call to action for my fellow lawyers: the legal industry has a long way to go to becoming partners in climate work. We don’t need litigation, we need collaboration and strategic thinking. Bring these skills to the table.
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.
It also often means expanding my network, so I can call on the collective knowledge for specific issues. The sustainability space is changing so quickly that you will likely need to reach out to other experts — it is really difficult to be an “expert” in all things sustainability (and if someone tells you they are, I would run away).
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.
The most common reason: some undefined “risk.” Be a leader, study the potential risks and find ways to effectively manage them (see above). It’s not that hard.
Additionally, I tell my students that if they don’t participate in the process, they can’t complain if they are unhappy with the end result. There are many opportunities to provide public comment, or serve on technical advisory groups, committees and industry boards that work closely with regulators. If you’re not being of service, you’re slowing down the process; and we need everyone on board.
“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.
This may have served some clients for some time, but it doesn’t drive the collaboration and integrated processes necessary for deep sustainability.
So we have to find a better way. There are contracts and risk / reward sharing clauses that support project teams that work together, towards a common goal. Seek these out and find the lawyers and brokers who understand how they work and their limitations — we are out there.
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.
Data will drive the next “green” revolution — and ESG is leading the way.
All publicly-facing statements regarding sustainability (and all other aspects of E, S and G) should be clear, defined (see above), transparent, data-driven and defensible. The standard is quickly approaching that of financial and accounting data.
And the SEC has recently demonstrated that it will consider not just documents filed with the SEC, but also sustainability reports, company websites and webinars.
And lest we forget the power of social media. Search for the hashtag #greenwashing on virtually any platform, and you will see just how quickly loose language on a website can lead to significant damage in the Court of Public Opinion. Consumers are more educated than ever; don’t underestimate them.
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.
And as the research demonstrating the negative health impacts of the spaces where we spend so much time piles up, and the strategies, technologies and service providers that can help foster healthier spaces continue to come down in cost, proceeding with business as usual is increasingly risky. Put another way, ignore the research from Harvard’s School of Public Health at your peril.
Healthy buildings are not the future, they are in high demand — now.
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.
Sustainability is still a very white space, and that needs to change.
Related to this point, there are many ways that building design excludes various groups. We can — and should — do better. We simply choose not to, and that says a lot about us.
Educate yourself and your teams on the latest tools and resources that help foster safer, more inclusive spaces, for everyone.
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.