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Guest Blog Post by Beth Tener: Why is working through networked approaches a core strategy for pursuing sustainability?

Author: Beth Tener,

Consider these scenarios:

  • Every hotel could adopt greener practices, such as saving water, reducing energy use, serving food from local farms in its restaurants – and many leaders already have. How do we get the rest of the hotels to learn from the leaders and adopt these innovations?
  • Buildings are responsible for about one-third of energy use in the US and their construction consumes large amounts of resources and generates considerable waste. How could we redesign how buildings are built and operated to greatly reduce these impacts? This is not an easy task when you consider how many ‘players’ are involved, such as architects, building owners, builders, and construction material suppliers to name a few.
  • In the non-profit sector, thousands of organizations are working on various aspects of environmental protection and social justice. How could their work be aligned to enhance their impact?

These scenarios represent the type of actions needed to achieve sustainability. In each case, to make progress, we need to work across organizational boundaries. Collaborating in networks is imperative to achieve the scale of transformation required to make our organizations, communities, and ecosystems sustainable.


What is sustainability?

Definitions of “sustainability” abound. At its core, it is a shift from intervening to fix a problem that causes an environmental impact to preventing negative impacts before they arise. We do this, for example, by redesigning how business operates, how buildings are built and operated, or how we grow food.


To intervene at the level of designing away and preventing problems requires collaboration across disciplines, organizations, and sectors. The following examples illustrate how and why networked approaches are emerging as a vital strategy for sustainability:

How can we quickly replicate sustainable innovations across many similar organizations?

As the hotel example above illustrates, every sector and type of institution needs to make similar changes to reduce energy use, resource consumption, and use of toxic materials. Networks that facilitate peer learning and sharing of best practices enable these improvements to spread more rapidly and avoid each organization’s “reinventing the wheel.”


For example, the Boston Green Tourism initiative hosts educational events every six weeks for hotels and restaurants in Boston, featuring instruction, updates, and case studies about how to green their operations. At a recent event, the Boston Hyatt Hotel shared how it achieved a 42% reduction in energy use, allowing other hotel managers to learn about and adopt similar practices. By working in networks, organizations can also coordinate their efforts to overcome common barriers they face in adopting sustainable practices, e.g., by lobbying for regulatory changes that make it more affordable for all network members to install renewable energy.

How can we transform industries and markets to be sustainable?

One organization cannot become sustainable alone; it requires that the larger “ecosystems” it works within to transform as well. For example, a business can often only go so far in “greening” its operations before it recognizes that it has to engage its suppliers and educate its market to create demand for green product and services. By collaborating in networks, each business benefits by helping to define industry standards for what is green, creating a common third-party certification that they are a leader that customers will recognize, and investing in joint research to develop new policies and technologies.


For example, an unprecedented coalition representing all of the major players in the building industry, including architects, construction firms, manufacturers of building supplies, and commercial developers created the US Green Building Council (USGBC) to “promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work.” Representatives from diverse professional disciplines, industries, and companies collaborated to develop standards for a high-performance building, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. Since it was founded in 1993, the Council has grown to almost 18,000 member companies and organizations and now more than 4.5 billion square feet and 35,000 projects have registered with USGBC to become LEED certified.


Similar market-wide networks are emerging in many sectors including the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the Green Restaurant Association, the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, the Sustainable Children’s Products Initiative, and Health Care Without Harm, which is greening health care institutions.

How can we align and magnify the impact of thousands of non-profit organizations working on similar sustainability goals?

In the non-profit sector, a multitude of people and organizations are working to create a more healthy sustainable society. Yet their work is often uncoordinated, duplicated, and underfunded.

In one example of how a network approach can help address this challenge, a foundation in Boston convened a network of about ten non-profits from the environmental and health fields, as well as representatives of the City of Boston. A foundation staff person saw potential for the participants to work together to promote green and healthy buildings in the City, since their goals were similar and overlapped. Few of the groups were aware of what the others were doing.


A network facilitator inventoried the types of audiences and strategies each non-profit was pursuing so the group could identify areas of duplication and gaps. After two years of collaboration in the Boston Green and Healthy Building Network, participants reported that following outcomes:

  • Enhanced connectivity among the Network participants that led to new relationships, expanded knowledge, and greater awareness of each other's work.
  • Greater alignment and coordination of advocacy work by the non-profit organizations and enhanced access to decision-makers.
  • The integration of green and healthy building objectives in tangible projects by the City of Boston and within the work of participating non-profit organizations.
  • New collaborations among Network organizations that led to significant gains in promoting green and healthy buildings.

A Chinese proverb states: "If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed." Imagine the pace of change possible as we connect and align the work of the millions of people organizations pursuing the vision of a sustainable world.



This article is part of the Leadership and Networks series, which is currently being developed as part of the Leadership for a New Era (LNE) collaborative research initiative.  LNE was launched in 2009 by the Leadership Learning Community; a nonprofit organization transforming the way leadership is conceived, conducted and evaluated in the nonprofit sector. LNE focuses on promoting leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked and collective. Through this initiative we are working with several partners to produce a publication that seeks to influence how leadership is cultivated and supported in the social sector; and to more effectively support efforts to mobilize collective action across sectors to address complex social and environmental issues.  In the next couple of weeks we will develop a series of articles exploring topics related to network leadership. For more information please visit