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9 Sustainability Lessons from Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

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A few weeks ago, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. During the seven days' climb on the Rongai Route, I thought about the many lessons the mountain was teaching me, lessons that can be applied to implementing a sustainability program within an organization. I believe these lessons are relevant whether your organization is just starting out or is well on its way to making sustainability part of daily operations.

1. Your team is key: Climbing Kilimanjaro, although not technically difficult, still requires quite a bit of planning and gear, which you cannot carry on your own. There are on average five porters for each trekker, and without them, the climb would be much slower and painful. We also had a cook and two guides. As with the climb, I have learned in over eight years of working in the sustainability field that a successful sustainability effort cannot be undertaken on your own. While you may have the vision and can put a plan in place, you need a team to ensure success. Team members will each have a role in ensuring that you reach your destination.

2. Take it 'poly poly': The phrase means 'slowly' in Swahili. Because of the altitude, the guides recommend climbing the mountain slowly. On the day of the summit, we learned that going 'poly poly' would get us there faster. We passed many who had sped past us earlier and now were too tired to continue at that pace. Setting the right pace for your sustainability program will help your organization achieve your goals. Although the temptation in many instances is to go fast, taking it one step at a time is what enabled us to make it to the top - and back down - and what will enable you to build and maintain momentum.

3. Be prepared, and be ready to improvise: We climbed with a tour operator that was recommended by a friend. Because the company had a decent reputation, we assumed that they had taken the necessary safety precautions. On Day 4, I got sick and we realized that they did not bring a basic emergency kit. Thankfully, my husband and one of the guides were quick to address the issue, which enabled me to continue climbing and reach the summit. Plan your sustainability initiative but understand that the plan may need to change. If something doesn't work, you will need to get creative and think of something else. One example I give is of a client whom we worked with who saw that their recycling rates were not improving. To address this, they switched all of their staff's trash bins to recycling bins. This was seven years ago - it was a revolutionary idea at the time.

4. The known can be an unknown: Overall, the trek up Kilimanjaro is relatively easy for a fit person. The great equalizer is altitude - no matter how fit you are, altitude sickness may strike and there is a chance you will not make it to the top. I knew this going in, and I was fine taking that risk. I see the economy as 'altitude' for sustainability. You can plan your sustainability program and take preventative measures- just like I took altitude sickness medication - but it is tough to predict the fluctuations in the economy, and the effect it will have on your program, if any.

5. Be wise, use your guides: While the path is clearly marked most of the way, and Kilimanjaro seems easy at first glance, a guide is required for the trek. I quickly learned that a good guide was crucial to a successful summit experience. The guide helped set the pace, taught me about the local culture, history, flora and fauna, and made sure that I reached the top. Similarly, it is tempting to implement a sustainability program on your own. You have the knowledge at your fingertips (via the Internet), you can put together a Green Team, and set your goals. However, without a knowledgeable, experienced person to lead the charge - either a sustainability consultant or an internal, seasoned sustainability professional - your chances of succeeding diminish significantly. Bring a 'guide' on board for your sustainability efforts. I have seen many sustainability programs fail or falter due to lack of knowledge, experience and leadership.

6. Walk the mountain in front of you: A lot of preparation went into the trip, and when I was finally there, I was tempted to only think about summit day - if I was going to summit, how long it would take, how tough it would be, etc... I was wisely counseled to take it one step at a time, and put one foot in front of the other. This made each day much more enjoyable and worry-free. When implementing a sustainability program, it is easy to get carried away with all of the 'what ifs'. Instead, celebrate the daily victories and recognize individuals for what they have done. Taking time to celebrate makes the process more fun, and the ultimate goal less daunting.

7. The going will get tough: The day of the summit, we woke up at 11pm, and by 12:30am, we were on the road with our headlamps. I was well prepared. I was wearing four layers on the bottom, and six layers on top, hand and foot warmers, a balaclava and ski hat. The weather was cooperating, and the sky was so clear that I could see the Milky Way. Looking up the path, I saw dots of lights from the lamps of others making their way up the mountain. I was going 'poly poly' up the switchbacks, so as to avoid slipping on the scree. Even with that, it was tough going. I was warm when moving, but cold as soon as I stopped, and the lack of oxygen made it tough to breathe. I kept going even as I saw others turning back because of fatigue or altitude sickness. I was determined to make it. At some point, your sustainability program will falter. You may have prepared but the preparations may not have been adequate, or the journey may be tougher than you expected. Keep the goal in mind, and remember that this is part of the journey. Figure out how to keep going, even if it is by taking small steps, until you regain momentum.

8. "Almost there" is not quite there: Once we reached the first peak, Gillman's Point (18,356ft /5,595m) at about 6:30am, I was for all intents and purposes on the rooftop of Africa. But this was not the top! There were two more peaks, the last being the highest. It took a lot of physical effort to get to Gillman's Point, and it took just as much mental effort to keep going to the very top, when it felt like I had already reached my goal. The second highest peak, Stella Point was at 18,684/5,695m, and the highest, Uhuru Peak, which we reached at 7:30am, was at 19,340ft/5,895m. It took only an hour from Gillman's to Uhuru Peak, but it felt like an eternity. Your sustainability initiative may feel that way at times - you are so close to your goal, and yet you still have a ways to go. Keep making progress. Almost reaching your goal, although great, isn't as satisfying as when you actually achieve it.

9. Downhill is tough: I expected getting to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro to be tough. What was tougher, however, was the hike down. Once we got to the top and celebrated, the guides hurried us down the mountain because the weather conditions could change at any time. When we got back to base camp, after a twelve hour round-trip, we rested for a bit, then had to hike down another three to four hours to the camp where we would spend the night. The next morning, we hiked down another six hours. We had reached the summit, and yet the trip was not done - we still had to follow-through and get down the mountain. Follow-through in a sustainability program is not sexy, but it is crucial if the program is to be successful. Tracking metrics, clarifying accountability, and continuous employee engagement are key ingredients to a successful ongoing program. Don't forget to keep going, even after you have met your goal, because the ultimate goal is incorporating sustainability into every aspects of your organization's operations.

Anca Novacovici is the founder and president of Eco-Coach, Inc., an environmental sustainability consulting firm in Washington, D.C. She works with executives to set their organization's sustainability strategy, and leads the tactical execution and change management required to fulfill on that strategy. You may contact her at anca@eco-coach.com. To learn more about Anca, click here.