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Confessing and Celebrating Failure as a Path to Successful Sustainability Strategies

Pick up any quote book or Google ‘inspirational memes’ and “Don’t be afraid to Fail” will most likely pop up in the first few pages. The idea of failure as the key to success is not a new one and yet the discussion around failure and real-life examples, particularly in the world of sustainability, is lacking. During the recent Sustainable Brands ’16 San Diego Conference, I moderated a panel on the idea of failure, sharing candid lessons and insights from industry leaders at JetBlue Airways, The Nature Conservancy, Nestlé Waters, Keurig Green Mountain and the National Hockey League. Despite the diverse backgrounds and experiences, the panelists shared 3 major themes: culture, communication, and connection. How do we learn from their experiences? Check out the key lessons from “Failure as a Path to Building Successful Sustainability Strategies and Purpose-Driven Innovation”:

Failure is feedback. For Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer for Keurig Green Mountain, the effort to create a recyclable K-Cup has been more of a rollercoaster ride than a straight speedway. However, by listening to consumers, listening to employees, and learning from the products that failed, the company was able to create a K-Cup that meets the demand for both easy use and sustainability.

The loudest voices are not necessarily the solution. As I shared at the conference, “we have two ears and one mouth.” Among the countless ideas and opinions, the best ideas don’t always come from those speaking loudest. Listening is important, but make sure you have a volume equalizer.


Culture eats strategy for lunch. Omar Mitchell, VP of CSR for the NHL, pitched a winning deck to his superiors for a multimillion-dollar initiative to refurbish community rinks as part of the League’s Centennial in 2017 … and failed. Despite what he thought was a great idea, he confessed he did not build internal support prior to his presentation. Instead, piloting the initiative at a smaller scale as a proof of concept was a more effective method of seeking longer term buy-in by all stakeholders.

“Don’t bang the green drum from the get go.” Start by building a chain of small successes to create the culture you need for big change. Sophia Mendelsohn, Head of Sustainability at JetBlue, pointed to the massive challenges and opportunities in creating an airline industry independent of fossil fuels. After struggling to effect change at the macro level immediately, she realized that she first had to make changes through methods that people were already comfortable with, such as recycling onboard airplanes. Sometimes it takes two steps back to take a giant leap forward.


Connect with people where they are in the sustainability journey. Geof Rochester has never been camping and yet serves as Managing Director for The Nature Conservancy. Rochester’s experience highlights the diverse ways in which people connect to the idea of sustainability and the environment. As he pointed out, “We should not hold this idea of environment so tightly” and instead be open to a variety of paths and perspectives in order to meet others where they are without judgment.

Nelson A. Switzer, Chief Sustainability Officer for Nestlé Waters, said he made a “killer presentation” to senior executives in a previous job that was met with “Who are you?” and “What was that?” Why did the presentation fall flat? Switzer later realized that he failed to consult with critical “C suite” executives before the meeting. He learned that he didn’t necessarily need the meeting, but he did need to know where his audience stood so he could prepare to manage the meeting, people and winning pitch.

Check out the full panel here for more stories and insights into the role of failure in spurring success and lessons for affecting change at every level.


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