08/05/2011 10:27 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2011

Plain Sight Sustainability, Mass Consumer Influence

Because of its potential to change the minds of those people and businesses not currently in the sustainability choir, what I call sustainability hidden in plain sight is an intriguing concept. Take me, as a choir member example. I attend the conferences, read and write for green business publications, and am active in social networks that are full of that realm's super smart influencers and practitioners. But, I can't whip people over the head with a canvas grocery bag to get them to see why I'm so passionate. Instead, for any person or organization looking to forward the sustainability movement, it's about seeing where sustainability already exists in common, everyday life, and working from that point. Sustainability hidden in plain sight presents the opportunity to demonstrate that many of us are already moving in that direction, and it has not been that painful or uncomfortable to do so.

Along those lines, I've been keeping an eye on the mass consumer influencing organizations with the most potential to engage people, if passively, with sustainability. Two with huge potential are:

Churches/religious institutions: For this group, it is about seeing "green" in terms of energy efficiency, saving on utility bills, and perhaps partnering in new ways to decrease facilities costs. Theirs is a business case for sustainability, but when considered more carefully, some churches may also start to see the broader environmental stewardship responsibility (as in: respecting that which a particular religion's "creator" has provided). There is a trend along these lines, as evidenced by a recent piece calling churches the newest front in green energy. Congregations may not realize it, but saving money by more responsibly using energy is sustainability hidden in plain sight.

University/college campuses: For the operational decision-makers in these institutions, too, their sustainability efforts likely begin as a business case. Today's campus sustainability leaders are charged with figuring out how to become more resource efficient in new construction and renovations as their first priority. But, the kicker in beginning to engage with sustainability hidden in plain sight comes with the student and employee engagement it could potentially ignite. Finally, if these institutions go about it wisely, research funding and marketing to future students will also benefit from pursuing sustainability as a competitive differentiator. The College Sustainability Report Card is one way this emerging race to be the greenest college campus can now be easily tracked by the masses. Whether or not a student is in the sustainability choir beforehand, he or she should be experiencing sustainability hidden in plain sight (buildings/landscape) as well as the more obvious examples (recycling and composting, water saving fixtures etc.) while on campus.

Given that many people are members of congregations or pass through universities at some point in time, how can the potential for institutional "hidden in plain sight" sustainability be best leveraged?

Communications: There's incredible potential for much better communication strategies and storytelling around what is already being done with regard to sustainability (for example, does the congregation or student body ever hear about the energy savings or why this building material was chosen over that building material during construction?). In most of the cases I've seen, and in terms of rallying the movement internally as well as inspiring others externally, it's about identifying and celebrating the elements of sustainability that do exist, which will then inspire and build engagement for coming together as a community and pursuing more.

Employee, congregant, member/student body engagement: By seeking input from these important groups early on and continually, institutions can improve their sustainability report card both for the time period someone is a congregation member or an on-campus student, and for years to come, as those people go out and "evangelize" in their life paths. What your organization starts now will affect broader, even global communities over time through the lives of its newly sustainability-influenced congregants or students.

If there is the potential to influence such large blocks of people toward more sustainable practices in the course of simply doing business more wisely, what are churches and universities waiting for? This is beyond a win-win. Institutions will save money on energy, have better designed buildings and grounds, and develop more engaged employees, members or student bodies.

Sustainability exists, hidden in plain sight, primed and ready to influence the lives of masses of people who may not realize that their church or campus is already a better place because of it.