The Sustainability Stair Climb

By Nick Hein, 8/23/18

What is sustainability and how do you DO it? The answer depends partly on what you WANT it to be and what you CAN do. In this article we’ll describe the Sustainability Stair Climb basics. In future articles we’ll give some specifics, including the big step that solar PV from Legacy Solar Co-op can help you climb.


First of all, what is sustainability and how do you DO it? There are the things in our daily lives that we need – like heat, light and food. Sustainability is just managing those resources so we’ll continue to have them as long as we need them. For our larger society it means clean air, clean water, healthy soil and wild places where nature can recover and regenerate the resources we’ve used. We can each do our part by making sure that we use only what we need and return things in the best possible condition. In our homes and lives we have some control of how we do that. So where should we start? Do you have an overall long-term plan or are you just committing random acts of greenness to collect rebate checks? I’ve found in my own journey, that I accomplish more when I have a plan.

A successful plan has to include the 3 types of creative thinking that ensure a good outcome.

  1. Systems thinking means we’re looking at everything that’s going into the task to determine which things will have the greatest effect at getting the outcome we want and avoiding outcomes we don’t want.
  2. Design thinking means that we’ve made the process easy and engaging for everyone involved, so it will get used.
  3. Strategic thinking means we’ve ensured that the resources are available to carry out the plan to completion.

You can think of your sustainability journey like a stairway – starting from the bottom, steps that can be taken one at a time, with a railing (for support and direction) and a top landing – a meaningful goal that encourages continued climbing until it’s reached. In this month’s installment I’ll describe the stairway in general terms and in future months I’ll go into more detail.

Sustainability Stair ClimbThe Bottom

When considering the place where you’re starting, describe what it is and how you’d like it to be better. That includes having a way for measuring where you are and levels of improvement – both in qualitative and quantitative terms. For example, a typical home or business wastes 30% more energy than an efficient one. You can check your electric bill to see how much you’re using now, and set a goal for what you want it to be.

The Steps

The steps are what we think most about when we’re climbing a stairway. One of the differences with our metaphorical steps is that we can build them however we want, preferably with the small, easiest ones first and the harder ones at the end when we’ve better prepared for them. A small, easy step could be scheduling an energy audit. A next step might be hiring a service to clean and maintain your HVAC system. The more difficult steps will include ones that take more effort, cost more money or require some sacrifice or sustained effort. The upper steps are upgrading your home’s insulation and systems or installing solar panels.

The Railing – Support and Direction

The railing is what guides and supports you as you keep climbing the stairs. Of course, most anyone who has climbed stairs knows that the railing isn’t absolutely required but it can help keep you going up and in the right direction with better focus. It might be a peer group that you’re in friendly competition with, an online blog where you’re sharing your results with others or progress toward one of the meaningful long-term goals you’ve put at the top landing. Reaching small, manageable milestones will encourage you to keep climbing toward your final goal.

The Top Landing – Long Term Goals

This is the reason for taking on your particular sustainability challenge – here is where you define what sustainability means to you. Any time you think about slowing or stopping, this is what will keep you going. Maybe you want to get all of your energy from renewable resources, save money, go off-grid or minimize your carbon and pollution footprint. Maybe you want to do it all. In each case determine the measurable quantity that will show progress toward your goal, and decide what daily actions you can take to achieve it. We’ll give some specific ideas in future articles, including the big step that solar PV from Legacy Solar Co-op can help you climb.

In the meantime, see what Legacy Solar Co-op can offer you. Become a member and reap the benefits of consulting.

For further reading on some of the concepts described here see:


  • Rother, Mike. Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010. Print
  • Meadows, Donella H.  Thinking in Systems:  A Primer.  London; Sterling, VA:  Earthscan, 2009.  Print/PDF
  • Sloan, Julia.  Learning to Think Strategically. Oxford: Elsevier Press, 2006.  Print/PDF
  • Wilhelm, Kevin. Making Sustainability Stick  Seattle, WA:  Pearson Publishing, 2014.  Print/PDF
  • Hsieh, Tony.  Delivering Happiness:  A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose New York: Business Plus Publishing, 2010.  Print/PDF