“Outside the Lines”–that was the framework through which Net Impact approached its annual conference (NI18), which was held this year from October 25th through 27th in Phoenix, Arizona. I don’t often give much weight to conference themes, but this year I found it meaningful in an untraditional way. For starters, the metaphor of “drawing outside the lines” applies very well to those of us seeking and working in sustainability careers. We have decided to reject the bounds and social norms of traditional business roles to pursue the greater good. We’ve gone beyond the confines of a single bottom line to a triple bottom line. As throughout our careers we account for the social and environmental impact of business (in addition to its financial value), our work is coloring outside the traditional lines of business.
While this metaphor certainly holds true in many ways, I discovered another related metaphor that, in my mind, is perhaps even more inspiring. Do you remember as a child trying to color within the lines of a coloring book? Holding a crayon or marker in a fist, it seemed nearly impossible to color inside the lines. We knew it could be done; there was proof from an older sibling, a babysitter, or a teacher. But somehow, every time we tried, it seemed we would never get it right. The speakers and panelists at NI18 reminded us that while we’ve all started painting the picture for tomorrow, we’re still far from getting it right.
In the opening keynote, Stephen Ritz, urban farmer and founder of the Green Bronx Machine, reminded us that connecting to the natural environment and the food we eat grounds us and fuels better people and better communities. The innovations of processed and packaged foods should not replace a diet rooted in fresh, healthy foods. It has taken decades for U.S. society to learn this, but with guidance from Ritz and others, we’re starting to see how it should be done. And with these lessons, we can create a better tomorrow.
Similarly, a panel on the circular economy, which featured leaders from the Closed Loop Partners, The Coca-Cola Company, and The Recycling Partnership, dug into the complexities of the broken waste system in the U.S. and around the world. From infrastructure investments to consumer education to packaging innovation, there is much to be done before we’ll see an ocean without plastic or a nation without landfills. But we know it can be done. By learning from those before us and by applying our own creative minds, we know we can paint a better picture.
Finally, as part of the closing keynote, Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, addressed the frustrations many of us feel as we see our steps forward turning into steps backward. She urged us not to give up. She reminded us that all those who came before us experienced setbacks as well, and that to achieve progress we must persevere. Another closing keynote speaker, Andrew Foss, founder of Prosecutor Impact, reminded us that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. was just the beginning of a long and arduous fight for racial equity in the U.S., and that we’re still far from getting the final picture right. Foss and McCarthy beseeched us all not to get complacent and not to give up, but rather to keep striving for the ideal picture we know we can paint.
The NI18 conference theme, “Outside the Lines,” reminded me that, as sustainability leaders, we are in many ways still in our infancy. This is frustrating at times and yet inspiring. With every mistake we make, we’re learning. And that’s the most important part: to keep learning. One day we’ll graduate from drawing with a fist to drawing with sure and steady brushstrokes. That day, when it comes, will be a game changer. But until then, the best each of us can do is keep learning, keep trying, and keep striving for those moments and experiences that will help us grow.
Katherine Huded is a first-year student in the Full-time MBA Program and a 2018-19 Scheller College of Business MBA Sustainability Fellow.