Shawna McKinley is a sustainability consultant and educator who is inspired by working with people who improve quality of life in communities. She works to create and implement diverse projects in the tourism, hospitality, event, marketing, non-profit and environmental education fields. She lives in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

Shawna is my personal hero. She is also my friend, mentor, champion and inspiration. I am not alone, as she serves in this role for many. Having known Shawna for nearly two decades, I am eternally grateful for the gift of her time, energy and passion while she served as Director of Sustainability for MeetGreen, making us the industry leader we are today. She is the representation of the phrase, “Be a Good Human.” Shawna shares her valuable insights in this interview about the challenges ahead for us all.

In the different industries you have been involved with, what is one common challenge?

The IPCC report has stated we have 12 years to act to limit climate change to moderate levels. 12 years! To put that in context: An Inconvenient Truth was released about 12 years ago. If we are still questioning climate change and stalling on climate action in 2019 like we were when that landmark documentary was released, I would say the biggest challenge is mobilizing big enough and fast enough across all industries to stop the worst effects of climate change. There can be no bystanders, and lack of control over the variables can no longer be an excuse for inaction.

What changes do you foresee in the next five years? Are there any trends (e.g. demographic, social, legal) that concern you?

For many years we’ve been able to put off sustainability, or consider it at our own pace. That is changing as climate change issues come home to roost and we have to confront them in more immediate and direct ways.

We’re asking financial managers about how climate change will impact our business and investments. We think more about how governments will pay for upgrades to infrastructure or emergency management in communities where we live as we’re faced with extreme weather. And we worry if we’re protected from the health impacts of increased heat. In many areas we’re responding and innovating to meet these challenges, which is exciting to see! Renewable energy adoption is increasing. We’re creating incentives for greener, more efficient buildings. Electric vehicles are becoming more accessible. And governments are accepting carbon taxes as a suitable economic mechanism to curb emissions. There is even talk of a Green New Deal.

These are proactive steps, but I think the worrying question is can it all culminate fast enough to avoid costly, fatal damage? I think that is why we see increasing legal action by youth and government to hold parties accountable for climate damages. And youth around the world striking for their climate rights. For a long time, industry had the luxury of claiming it has been too expensive to act on climate, but today we’re seeing costs become more expensive the longer we delay. So, the main change to deal with is increasing urgency.

What business value have you seen from sustainability efforts?

This may seem obvious or simple, but I think people are happier when they are contributing to good in the world. And that is what sustainability, when it is done well, should create: a better quality of life. Yes, that is warm and fuzzy, but it’s also helpful in business. I work harder if I believe what I do makes a difference. I show up. I tell people about positive impacts being created. I try to enroll others. If you can cultivate that ethic among your employees, members or customers by embracing sustainability they will be your fans. And that creates business value.

How can a sustainability policy benefit companies and organizations?

A sustainability policy can help clarify purpose. It answers the question “why are we doing this” in a way that isn’t cluttered with technical guidance and best practices. Not that those things aren’t valuable—they are necessary—but sometimes when you are mired in the details of sustainability you lose sight of the overall intention. And simplifying intentions in a policy can unleash creativity to find new solutions outside of accepted best practices. It gives you permission and freedom to innovate in a purposeful way.

You are a master storyteller; how can our readers translate sustainability into stories that mean something to their stakeholders?

I think it always helps to find a human-scale touch point. Maybe it is a few key numbers communicated in a way people can relate to. Or a selected story about the impact your efforts have had on a person, community or group of people. Our challenge is to grab attention and move people. And the things that move people can vary greatly, so it’s also important to understand your audience, what speaks to them, and the media they use.

What are the challenges and risks of sustainability reporting?

The court of public opinion can be very unforgiving today. And unfortunately, I think it is still sometimes safer to not report than try to sincerely report and get criticized for inadequate effort. Many companies that don’t practice sustainability or report on it transparently fly under the radar while others who are trying to make a meaningful difference get heavily criticized. That’s a tough gig to persist at, when you get beat up out there on the battlefield while many might still be standing on the sidelines. But more companies are reporting, and if they are not, they are facing shareholder or regulatory pressure to do so.

Describe a sustainability indicator which you find most helpful for events?

There’s many, but given our current situation to act on climate I would say it is most important to measure your event carbon footprint. This enables you to estimate the event’s emissions impact per event participant, including travel to and from the event, so you can take steps to reduce. That is the most material indicator.

Wise words from a wise woman. The time to act is now, there can be no bystanders! Thanks, Shawna, for continuously calling the rest of us to action and reminding us to be change agents at work, at home and in our communities.