How Do We REALLY Learn About Sustainability?

Over the past few years, significant progress in sustainability best practices has been achieved across the public, private, academic, and service sectors in West Michigan. Sustainability best practices are being embedded in many organizations as guiding principles to help build, develop, and grow platforms for future progress and long-term added value. To achieve these results, many organizations and enterprises alike have undertaken the sustainability journey including: creating awareness; generating understanding; determining applications; tracking progress; establishing value; and effecting change. It is our human nature to desire rapid transformational change, but we cannot expect to leapfrog to these desired results without going through the other steps first. Effective communication strategies must be developed to inform all engaged stakeholders. This sounds easy, but is a most difficult and daunting task. Questions arise about who is the audience? What is the message? What type of media should be used?

I do not have a communications background or degree, but believe effective communication is one of the biggest challenges today for businesses, enterprises, and organizations regarding sustainability best practices. Living under the premise that “the only thing constant today is change,” keeping up with all the events, activities, and sustainability achievements being made in West Michigan is a real test. And the bigger question is how do we keep track and actually learn about sustainability progress? We have many options and media outlets available at our disposal to use, including print media, websites, social media, radio, television, videos, documentaries etc. Another most effective strategy that sometimes isn’t highlighted is the art of storytelling! A recent March 2016 article in Knowledge @ Wharton was written on “How Storytelling Can Grow a Business.” The concept of “storytelling” on first blush seems vague and more abstract in nature than being a concrete strategy. Yet the evidence now presents a different picture. Many companies are now developing storytelling cultures including Apple, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods, Virgin Airways, and many others. In fact, Richard Branson has said, “who cannot tell a story will never be successful.”

So then what are some of the critical takeaways of a storytelling culture?

  • Reach out to customers, suppliers, employees, and stakeholders alike frequently and obtain the real stories – what is working!, what is not working!, what can be done better!, and share these stories openly
  • Turn shareholders and stakeholders into messengers and ambassadors
  • Tell stories about sustainability progress and “taking care” of shareholders, stakeholders, and customers
  • Develop high impact videos of less than 5 minutes around sustainability progress and transition that can be widely distributed and posted
  • Keep messaging and storytelling simple, very brief and clear, using terms that everyone understands
  • Create positive messaging and storytelling to help build and sustain brand image and reputation

What has West Michigan done to share stories about the sustainability progress being made in our greater community?

  • Community Sustainability Partnerships (CSPs) are being further developed in West Michigan including those in Holland, Muskegon, Spring Lake/Grand Haven, Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Portage/Battle Creek/Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids ( The CSPs are capacity building and networking organizations that share stories about their sustainability progress through Facebook and other social media outlets, as well as website postings.
  • Each month sustainability community stories are also reported through WGVU’s Shelley Irwin’s morning radio show that has a reach of ~ 2.5 MM listeners across West Michigan. These stories are both inspirational and aspirational.
  • Various public, private, and academic sector organizations host annual sustainability champion events including the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Local First, Grand Valley State University and others. At GVSU’s recent Sustainability Champions celebration event over 35 awards and recognitions were presented to students, faculty and staff, project teams and specific organizations within the West Michigan community. These stories, pictures, and videos all help celebrate success while building momentum moving forward.
  • Virtual conferences and webinars are also very cost effective and time efficient, as sustainability best practices and learning outcomes can be shared and discussed on your own computer. Recently, the Grand Rapids Regional Center of Expertise in Educational for Sustainable Development and City Middle High School in Grand Rapids ( hosted a ½ day virtual global conference for high school students on the topic of renewable energy. Other schools from; Portland, OR; Curitiba, Brazil; Minna, Nigeria; Lima-Callao, Peru; Bogota-Medellin, Columbia; and Portrero, Costa Rica participated.
  • TEDx style events are likewise very effective and efficient for sustainability storytelling as well. For several years, the Grand Rapids CSP has held annual IGNITE events for the West Michigan community. These ½ day events feature up to ~ 12 TEDx style talks of ~ 15 minutes each that focus on community sustainability storytelling. The next event is scheduled for May 17th in Grand Rapids (

The story of sustainability storytelling is just beginning to take form and shape. This type of sustainability communication has been developed on a grassroots basis, always taking time to reflect and celebrate what’s working and why, in the West Michigan community. Birgit Klohs, president of the Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids, has said that “sustainability is the DNA of West Michigan!” Storytelling and sharing experiences and lessons learned is inherently built into our families and culture. We learn from our peers, leaders, and those we hold in high esteem. Storytelling of sustainability successes and lessons learned is working in our community and should be, as West Michigan is comprised of many family owned businesses and organizations that have a lot to share regarding experiences, wisdom, and lessons learned.

I wish you the best on your sustainability journey!

Norman Christopher
Director, Office of Sustainability Practices Grand Valley State University
Author, Sustainability Demystified