Passion Economy: Efficiently Guiding Your Sustainability Team’s Dreams

Dr. Bronner’s, the multimillion-dollar castile soap company we know today, is the culmination of 150 years and five generations of soapmaking in the Bronner family. During that time, they invented the first liquid castile soap, immigrated to America, mainstreamed the family brand, and became the largest personal care company certified under USDA’s National Organic Program.

The “YES” culture they have spent a century and a half cultivating is a major part of what makes Dr. Bronner’s such a successful organization. However, as Senior Sustainability, Quality, and Innovation Manager Darcy Shiber-Knowles acknowledges, “on the other side of the coin, it is one of the big challenges in our fast-paced culture.”

As the leader of the Dr. Bronner’s Green Team 2.0, Shiber-Knowles is responsible for developing the innovations and ideas her team members create. Surprisingly, one of her most important jobs is saying “no” to a long list of fantastic proposals.

“We can’t say yes to everything and that’s one of the challenges that we face,” Shiber-Knowles explains. “We have finite resources in the day. We can make big improvements with the low-hanging fruit, but getting the last 2% of the bigger sustainability endeavors complete will really provide us with the most challenges.”

Steve Jobs perfectly explained Shiber-Knowles’ thinking at the Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference over twenty years ago:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus
on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the
hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m
actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have
done. Innovation is saying “no” to 1,000 things.”

Members of the Dr. Bronner’s Green Team 2.0 generate a long list of potential projects that will save the company resources and money while increasing morale. But, at the end of the day, there is a limit to what they can realistically accomplish. It’s Shiber-Knowles job to harness her team’s passion and energy and direct it towards achieving tangible goals.

That doesn’t mean settling for simple wins—quite the opposite. As of 2015, Dr. Bronner’s made a commitment to become a Zero Waste organization. Shiber-Knowles knows that fulfilling this commitment will require every ounce of passion and focus her team can offer, which means shutting the door on alluring distractions.

Just because saying no is important, doesn’t make it easy. “It’s really tough,” shares Jacqueline Drumheller, former Sustainability Manager at Alaska Airlines, “because, on one hand, I want people to pursue their passions and put their energy into something meaningful. But”, she adds, “there are times when team members want to pursue initiatives that aren’t specific to the business model or do not have meaning to the organization.”

Thinking in terms of efficiency is natural for the airline industry–Drumheller is just extending that line of thinking from fuel economy to passion economy.
By separating the enticing from the meaningful, she ensures that when truly groundbreaking ideas do come along, her team has the energy reserves to see them through. It’s a balance that requires a unique blend of open-mindedness to new ideas and obsessive commitment to long-term company goals.

Knowing that only about 2% of Sustainability Teams meet or exceed their sustainability goals, leaders like Drumheller and Shiber-Knowles find resolve to say no by remembering the big picture. They won’t solve an environmental crisis overnight, but by staying focused and efficient, they will arrive at their destination.