Sustainability--The Silent Megatrend

By Stephen Ashkin
Illustration: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / jbrouckaert

With their attention focused on the need to stretch ever-dwindling budgets, many managers may not have noticed a trend now taking hold in all types of facilities, from offices and hotels to schools and, yes, even park and recreation centers. This new phenomenon—or megatrend—is sustainability. In creating a “culture of sustainability,” individuals throughout an organization look for ways to reduce their resource usage and their impact on the environment. This trend may be how park and recreation facilities are operated and used for generations to come.


According to John Naisbitt, who popularized the term in his bestselling book of the same name, a megatrend is a great force that builds over time until it affects all aspects of society and people around the world. Globalization is an example of a megatrend; starting slowly some 25 years ago, it now affects people and companies world-wide. While it has been met with some resistance—as many megatrends are—globalization has become an irresistible force in many ways. Most observers now consider it here to stay.

Defining sustainability can be more complicated. It originally referred to using natural resources in such a way that they meet the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs as well. However, sustainability today also emphasizes finding a balance among people, profits, and the planet.

Here’s what a sustainable organization looks like:

  • People. The organization ensures that its staff and the community in which it is located are treated fairly and equitably.

  • Profits. While nonprofits and government entities such as park and recreation departments do not need to address “profitability” per se, they do need to operate within an existing (and often shrinking) budget. Improving efficiencies helps to provide better services with less money.

  • Planet. The organization uses natural resources responsibly while reducing its impact on the environment. *

There is one more definition that requires clarification—culture. As it applies to sustainability, culture can be described as shared thinking. This means that individuals who work for an organization—and, in the case of a park and recreation location, people who actually use the facility—all think about and take actions every day that minimize their impact on the environment and their use of natural resources, ensuring that the facility is safe and healthy for all to use. Essentially, as a shared value, sustainability becomes an everyday part of the behavior of everyone involved with an organization or facility.

Creating A Culture Of Sustainability
Megatrends often have mysterious beginnings. Years after they have taken hold, experts are frequently baffled as to exactly how, where, when, and sometimes even why they began. However, there are some key managerial elements that need to be in place to foster the growth of such a philosophy in most organizations:

Top-down direction . The decision to make a park and recreation facility more sustainable must start at the top and be continually supported by management. In fact, many large organizations are now establishing a CEO of Sustainability, whose job is to define sustainability for the specific organization and then suggest and implement ways it can be achieved. These individuals help establish overall goals and objectives and a high-level strategy for the organization. Usually they have their own “sustainability teams” reporting, people who are responsible for communicating the new strategies and goals throughout the organization. When it comes to park and recreation properties, this communication needs to extend to those who use the facilities as well.

Bottom-up implementation . Interestingly, while sustainability goals and direction must come from the top, it is crucially important to have the direct support and involvement of staff members at every level of the organization. This is often called “bottom-up” sustainability implementation. The initiatives can be accomplished only when staffers are empowered to become directly involved in strategizing and suggesting ways for the organization to meet its goals. After all, top-level executives can set goals for an organization, but it is those people actually doing the work who typically turn those goals into reality.

Measurement . Measuring the results of a sustainability program is essential to its success. Typically, this is accomplished by the use of dashboard systems—web-based systems that help benchmark, monitor, and measure an organization’s use of energy, fuel, water, consumables (such as paper products and cleaning supplies), and other metrics. This will be obvious to many administrators, who support the old adage: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Having ways to measure the success of sustainability initiatives is crucial to creating a culture in which all employees are motivated to meet its goals.

Why Sustainability Should Matter
In the past, few people in the United States would have believed that petroleum would someday be in short supply or that even water, our most vital resource, might be subject to chronic restrictions. Unfortunately, it is now common knowledge that we must find ways to use our resources more carefully.

The good news is that implementing sustainability almost always creates a win-win situation for organizations, allowing them to do better for the environment and the people in their communities, while also reducing costs. These savings can also help close the gap between the goals and aspirations of recreation and facility managers and the ever-tightening budgets they must work with.

* This is often referred to as the “triple-bottom line,” a phrase first coined in 1994 by John Elkington, the founder of a British consulting organization called SustainAbility.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.