9 common mistakes and barriers for sustainability leads

Whether you call yourself a ‘climate manager’, ‘sustainability officer’, ‘climate action lead’ or something else, all sustainability leads face similar common challenges and barriers to their work.

See how many you identify with:

  1. You struggle to communicate what sustainability means for your organisation to your organisation.
    It can be difficult to collaborate and communicate clearly across teams and departments and, in the case of the public sector, even between local, regional and national governments. Sustainability is all about partnerships and joined up working and yet our systems aren’t built to do so. To convince others to deliver sustainable action you need to be confident yourself on what to do.

  2. Sustainability sometimes seems impenetrable and overwhelming.
    Sustainability leads require a deep understanding of sustainability issues and the ability to stay up-to-date on emerging trends and best practices in the field. It’s easy to get Imposter’s Syndrome but it’s especially so in these roles that are often very new for an organisation and have great expectations set on the shoulders of the new lead.

  3. You don’t know or know how to communicate the full value of your actions.
    Too often we mistake the impact we have direct understanding and control over as our only impact. Discovering the full environmental, social, economic and political value of our work helps not only identify gaps in our plans but also where we’re making a positive impact that we didn’t even know about.

  4. You have lot of responsibility but with limited budget and resources.
    All of us are time- and resource-constrained. It’s difficult enough to deliver work but an organisation’s sustainability goals are often its most ambitious and pressing. Many sustainability tools and frameworks, however, are too lengthy and cumbersome, deaf to the sustainability lead’s needs to deliver today rather than tomorrow.

  5. You have to balance competing priorities/understanding and even deal with resistance.
    The reality about sustainability that is not often voiced is it is just one of many complex and competing priorities an organisation may have. Not everyone cares as much about sustainability as you may do either - and yet you still need to collaborate with them. Sustainability is as much about the soft skills you employ as it is the hard data and action you deliver.

  6. You’re expected to be the only one to deliver sustainability in your organisation.
    A common mistake of managers, and even leads themselves, is to expect sustainability leads to deliver the change needed all by themselves. One of the key skills required for any sustainability lead is the ability to enable and empower colleagues (who are not sustainability experts themselves) to deliver sustainability. At the end of the day they are the ones delivering the projects, policies or plans of the organisation.

  7. You fall into the trap of carbon tunnel vision.
    You may have heard this one before. It’s too easy to think sustainability means just reducing carbon. Sustainability is, however, a far more complex web of environmental, social, economic and political systems. Considering only climate action sets you up to fail early if you don’t take into account, for example, equity (does your action affect everyone equally? Who loses out?) financial constraints (will the organisation continue to be financially sustainable as well as sustainable?) or biodiversity (maybe you’ve reduced energy consumption but lost precious habitat?) among a host of other interconnecting considerations.

  8. You aren’t able to prove your impact because you don’t measure or monitor it.
    You’ve gone to all the effort of developing then implementing your plans and now you’re been asked to show your impact. Measuring and monitoring impact can often be an afterthought given the effort it takes to deliver sustainable action - but it doesn’t have to feel so complicated or arduous.

  9. You can’t avoid burnout.
    Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes is for organisations to not comprehend the mental toll on sustainability leads who may face burnout from the constant pressure to deliver results and make progress on sustainability goals. The role can be emotionally taxing if you are passionate about sustainability but feel like you are not making a significant impact.