Trevor Hinkle

The Fundamental Shift

November 29, 2021

For several years, I’ve been trying to sell sustainability and climate action to businesses, and it’s not as easy as one would hope. Despite the current and future impacts of climate change being apparent, corporate decision makers still have far too many perverse incentives, or simply speak a language of ROI and NPV that is hard for us sustainability folks to converse in.

I was once told by an executive at a large company that quantifying the risk of climate inaction in the billions (reasonably accurate for a firm of this size) was too big a quantity to be taken seriously - its magnitude undermined the credibility of the calculation, no matter how true it was.

In the last few years, there’s been an influx of talented folks building businesses in this space who have surely found more specific solutions to selling sustainability, but the overarching narrative remains a fuzzy one, often based on risks of future policy and regulation that may or may not come.

A turning point in my journey to selling sustainability was reading an excellent article on sales decks, which outlines a 5 step narrative to selling a solution:

  1. Name a Big, Relevant Change in the World
  2. Show There’ll Be Winners and Losers
  3. Tease the “Promised Land” - the place where the organisation can be as a winner
  4. Introduce features of your product as tools to reach this “Promised Land”
  5. Present Evidence that your product can make this story come true for the organisation

Adapting that framework to a solution-agnostic narrative for selling sustainability brought me to the following narrative:

  1. There is a fundamental shift happening towards a more sustainable economy. One can argue about the speed of this shift, but the trend of ambition at the international, national, corporate, and local levels of governance is undeniable, and therefore the shift is inevitable.
  2. At an individual and state level, climate change is a collective action problem; we will “win” or “lose” together (side note: I think such binary narratives of climate change are damaging, but that’s for another post). But for other institutions, such as corporations, there will be winners - new organisations and nimble legacy organisations that meet the moment and help propel this transition forward - and losers - organisations that fail to recognise that they are building solutions for yesterday’s economy.
  3. Proactive steps are needed to become one of the winners in this fundamental shift, and __ solution for __ problem represents one of those steps because ___.

While this framing still lacks specificity, it presents an opportunity for simplifying rhetoric. If you agree with Point 1, it’s hard to argue with the key assertions of Point 2 and 3, and therefore with the overall narrative. If you disagree with Point 1, then we need to completely reframe the conversation, and you’re probably not buying from me any time soon.

This framing is also personally helpful as it recasts worrying trends optimistically. Recent news of climate impacts, IPCC projections, etc. are undoubtedly worrying, but it’s also an exciting time; we get to participate in this necessary, fundamental shift.

While I’ve seen some signs that this narrative for selling sustainability is compelling, I’d love to hear about other frameworks that have been successful - whether you’re looking to build a business in this space or looking to advocate for climate action at your company, we all can benefit from more tools to convince decision makers not only of the gravity of the problem, but also the incredible potential of being part of the solution.



Current gig: Helping ambitious climate-oriented organisations with strategy, innovation, and digital product challenges via Lighthouse.
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