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Accelerating sustainable change

Giselle Wilkinson

Sustainable Living Foundation, Email


The Sustainable Living Foundation (SLF) is a young, non-funded organisation which exists to accelerate the change needed to create a sustainable future. It is best known for its Sustainable Living Festival, held annually at Federation Square, Melbourne attracting over 80,000 visitors. The Foundation holds that by looking back to early and recent SLF history, by looking forward the next ten years at the Race to Sustainability (and the need for sustainability practitioners to help us get there); by capturing the key milestones and by reviewing the strategic thinking over the first 6 years, - a template can be developed for creating an effective environmental organisation based on voluntary participation. Currently, voluntary participation applies to everyone in the organisation although some may receive occasional recompense, depending on the projects they’re involved with and the availability of funds. , This paper covers the original vision setting, and formation stage, the expansion period and the consolidation process – with the aim of inspiring and enabling others to effectively engage the community through existing or purpose built organisations. It examines the path taken including the pitfalls, the pain and the role of passion. It includes a formula for building a grassroots organisation from the ground up. The three key lessons relate to the importance of values that drive the vision, the need for great care and demonstrable commitment in setting expectations, and the modus operandi of empowerment and inclusivity that works so well for SLF.

Three key learnings: (1) Provide a case and opportunity for optimism, engagement and help in ‘joining the dots’; (2) Have the ability to create innovative and entrepreneurial mechanisms for paradigm change; (3) Promote shared ownership, collective, cooperative and collaborative management of the organisation – the vehicle for this good work of accelerating sustainable change.


The Sustainable Living Foundation (SLF) was formed in response to a sense of environmental urgency and the passionate belief that positive solution-oriented options already available could make a big difference to our individual and collective sustainability if widely adopted. People came together building a vibrant organisation from the ground up fuelled by sheer enthusiasm and backed by knowledge but few funds. The certainty that time is short and a race is on underpins the many initiatives implemented in SLF’s short six year history, including several major Sustainable Living Festivals held annually in the heart of Melbourne..

The Sustainable Living Festival has around 120,000 people over three days visit the site filled with sustainability related exhibits and activities. Tired but happy, some of the 186 voluntary participants supporting the 205 event are shown here in Figure 1.

Figure 1. A handful of the many volunteers participating in the SLF Festival in 2005

The most recent of SLF’s initiatives, the “Race to Sustainability”, is a large scale sustainability effort, generated within SLF and designed to mobilise the entire community. Currently focussed in Victoria it will be simultaneously linking and spreading nationally and internationally with the ultimate goal of achieving zero carbon emissions by 2015. A key SLF role in the Race is to help create localised pathways with some tested processes to support the development of other groups’ in getting their project(s) up and racing.

The Race to Sustainability was developed in response to the increasingly urgent need to avoid dangerous climate change:, a ‘race’ that requires a rapid reduction of carbon emissions to 300 ppm by 2015. SLF members contend that by concentrating our attention, pooling our resources and cooperating at a global and local level, selfish, divisive and destructive interests could be overcome.

George Lakoff’s book (2004) “Don’t think of an elephant” outlines the nurturant world view which SLF as a nurturing organisation, relates to. SLF’s approach reflects Lakoff’s claim that the impetus for change resides within our values, and that the evidence will be found in new and more sustainable ways of thinking and living together on the planet and in our communities. Some future scenarios are very positive.

There are many impediments to be overcome however, including governments’ lack of leadership in the handling of society’s levers; conflicts at different levels of government; powerful and vested interests and an inadequate number of sustainability facilitators. The operating of society’s levers lies with government. It is dependant on the establishment of a suitable regulatory environment including the appropriate incentives. Wise and effective leadership and action is desperately needed to tune society’s levers for sustainable outcomes but while a handful of European countries have governments taking useful and timely action, on the whole and notably in Australia, the tardy and uncooperative recognition and scant bold vision are obstacles to action. So the fundamental role of grassroots organisations seems vital. SLF people work (unpaid, underpaid and paid) to raise awareness, clarify and articulate the values of SLF, promote sustainability related change and engage the community in personal and collective actions large and small.

A key strategy for achieving the massive change needed is considered by SLF to be the dedicated pro-active proliferation of organisations at the community level. The goal of the Race to Sustainability is to inspire and enable community engagement in metro, regional and rural communities and assist new ‘racing’ organisations to establish. The Race metaphor conveys the sense of urgency and destination identifying what must be ‘sustained’ and the realistic time-frame we have to work in to achieve our goals.

Building an effective organisation from the ground up is no small task and it has become clear that the Sustainable Living Foundation has much to offer other groups in streamlining and fast-tracking the process. This paper summarises the key elements identified during the Sustainable Living Foundation’s six and a half years of development. It looks at the field work and the tools that have been derived from this experience; the value of the models and theories that have emerged or been developed; and pinpoints the most crucial factors needed to fast track this process for others; the goal being to accelerate their contribution to the Race to Sustainability and to increase their effectiveness and their own ‘sustainability’. Data from a survey undertaken at the 2005 Festival is used and the paper also draws on the first hand experience and observations of one of the three initiators and ongoing key ‘drivers’ of SLF.

The historical phases in SLF’s evolution are described under four headings: structure, activities, values and tools, as represented in Figures 3, 4 and 5. The flowchart in Figure 2 below indicates the key principles being applied at this time: formation, expansion and consolidation.

1999 << 2000 --- Formation --- 2001

2002 --- Expansion --- 2003

2004 --- Consolidation --- 2005 >> 2006

Democratic and civil engagement

Innovation, lateral and creative thinking

Participating in choosing the future, vision setting

Deepening the knowledge;
‘joining the dots’

Structures and processes to support the work

Low overheads, gifting time/resources

Receiving from the gifting economy

Expectation setting, care and maintenance

Encouragement and empowerment to participate

Labour intensive relationship-building

Building of profile and credibility

Getting on the map; promoting work of others.

Optimism, tenacity

Dealing with critics

Proceeding with confidence


Entrepreneurial commercial and community engagement


Servicing the movement to assist the message to get out


Bio-mimicry / natural systems emulation


Seeking better than just best of sector


Dealing with reality now while not compromising longer term goals

Figure 2. Principles applied in the development of SLF 1999-2006

Impetus for Formation < 1999. At the end of the last century a number of individuals, who had been working on complementary projects in Queensland and Victoria, joined forces to form a small group which became responsible for the emergence of the Sustainable Living Foundation in the year 2000. Working with the imminent and pivotal community event – a ‘Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair’, the third of its kind, they catalysed and consolidated the community interest and the commitment of key people who wished to fill the vacuum created by the then Kennett Government’s neglect of the renewable energy industry in particular.

Grassroots Leadership. In the absence of any significant political leadership being demonstrated at state or federal levels, the years of frustration at the lack of political vision and exasperation at abandonment of the existing Environmental Non Government Organisations (ENGOs) prompted action. The identified need was for a ‘positive, solution oriented’ sustainability-promoting organisation that would effectively engage the wider community and thus the early expectations of SLF were formed. Since then, the foundation that grew from these small beginnings came to terms with its context and role as a grassroots leader.

When the new Victorian Labor government came in however, the old hope and expectation of meaningful action at a government level was revived by the rhetoric and extensive community consultation. Over time, however, it became clear that this new government, whilst happy to hear the ideas and perspectives, was not so keen to give carriage of these proposed programs to the community. Goals then had to be re-set again as it became apparent that, if anything was to happen through governement, it would be at a painfully slow pace.

Ideas generation; concept development. Ideas flowed abundantly from the growing pool of enthusiastic, committed and creative people converging on the new organisation and a wide range of issues emerged from the many meetings that occurred fortnightly for many months in those early days. As projects sprang from this wide range of specific interest areas and gradually formed into what later became ‘platforms’ a key pathway to effective action was provided which has continued to maintain the momentum. Projects also occurred because it was vital to gain those first early ‘runs on the board’. The first Festival, eventually held in November 2001, was really about this. In many ways the Foundation was not ready, with no money and no credibility to speak of, but a successful event was essential to put SLF on the map, so it had to happen.

A public meeting in December 1999 indicated wide spread support and a self nominated group of passionate and skilled people put their hands up to form an initial Steering Committee.

Formation Phase 2000– 2001





Steering Committee
* Legal & Financial
* Brochures, web page
* Vision setting
* Expectation Setting
* Strategic Planning
* Networking

Home based Office
Events >> Fair
Interest Groups
Sustainability Week

100% voluntary participation
Empowerment and Inclusivity
Dealing with Critics and blockers


Figure 3. Formation Phase: early establishment in structure, activities, values and tools


Steering Committee. The Steering Committee met three weekly to set up the Foundation, register the name, establish the vehicle of the legal incorporated association, put in place the financial structure, establish the Public Fund and gain the tax deductible charity status with the Federal Government. It also had to establish an office, build a membership base to cover phone bills and develop some initial promotional materials.

Vision Setting. The shared sense of urgency expressed at the first public meeting was soon articulated into a Vision Statement – “The Sustainable Living Foundation exists to accelerate the use of sustainable technologies and practices that will protect and improve our environment” and central to this was the understanding that a major paradigm shift was needed. Eventually, after an extensive investigative process involving members and selected ‘consultants’ in early 2001, a clarifying ‘statement of sustainability’ was produced: “Sustainability means that as a society we are aware of the impact of our actions on the planet, that we take responsibility for these actions and are transparent in our processes. It requires that we have a vision for our future, educate ourselves to decrease our negative impact on the earth whilst seeking ways to reduce damage to the planet".

Expectation setting; Care and Commitment. Expectations, like seeds, can be deliberately planted; can seemingly self-seed; and can be spread inadvertently and unconsciously by unsuspecting people. Like seedlings, they need to be watched over and selected on the basis of their appropriateness to the conditions – the reality – they are found in. They need ongoing management. This particularly applies to expectations around government support, community interest, availability of funds and, most importantly, the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves.

Around 2000 SLF began to learn that, as an organisation, it didn’t fit the prevailing approach to sustainability – instead covering the breadth of the movement rather than the specific issues-based approach of other ENGOs and indeed, of government departments and authorities. So the expectation that the SLF vision would be valued and supported and would attract adequate funding had to be slowly and painfully re-examined. During this period a number of ‘white knights’ arrived to save the organisation, convincing the hard workers in their vulnerable and needy state that they just ‘hadn’t gone about it the right way yet’. The implication was that, as unpaid workers with scant resources operating from someone’s private study for 2 years, they were just disorganised amateurs. As the ‘saviours’ fell by the wayside the realisation grew that the job was, in fact, hard despite the many prominent people making strong statements about impending climate change and the urgency for action, there simply weren’t ‘buckets of money out there’. At the same time, an appreciation grew that there were hidden virtues in avoiding funding that comes with strings and outcomes attached. Although lack of funds sometimes causes severe obstacles, self determination, setting the pace and agenda, being creative, innovative and even spontaneous where others couldn’t was the up side. It also brought SLF into the ‘Gifting Economy’ (more on that later).

Strategic Planning. SLF strategic thinking has always been values-driven. At the start it encapsulated a range of natural, creative and innovative means to raise awareness; make ‘sustainable living’ a household term; and embody useful engagement and action. The presenting challenge for the Foundation was to put its case clearly and dispassionately to the wider community, throwing a strong and effective light on what was needed. The first strategy planning weekend was held in May 2000 at Bonnie Doon, country Victoria.

The initial strategy, reflected in the original Vision Statement, involved ‘accelerating the uptake’ at a grass roots level by engaging the wider community – subsequently identified as the ‘awakening mainstream’. SLF’s points of difference were that it (i) was about “positive solution oriented action”; (ii) was based on a community engagement model; (iii) encompassed the emerging breadth of sustainability; (iv) incorporated the provision of support to sustainability related enterprises (both ‘for’ or ‘not for’ profits) to continuously improve businesses and to address the need to ‘walk the talk’. The strategy basically entailed stepping into the interrelated, ‘all of sustainability’ leadership breach; making the Sustainable Living Foundation known in the network, galvanising support and collaboration; if possible attracting adequate funds for core positions; building a membership base; locating a secure home base and getting initial ‘runs on the board’.

The recently formed Strategy Collective will re-commence the strategy making work poste Festival 2006.

Networking. One of the key and concerted efforts in the first 2 years was relentless networking. Attending everything that was remotely linked to SLF’s areas of interest; breakfast meetings, conferences, accepting any offer for lunches or coffees; visiting other organisations; organising and then consolidating and nurturing any flicker of interest with follow up phone calls, emails and the development of marketing materials over time - relationship building, whilst most intense in the early establishment phase, never stops. As people move around, the need to start again or revive organisational relationships is constant. Managing the database of contact details of a large and growing network is, in itself, a huge task and acquiring database management skills is a priority. Once in place, it’s only as good as the diligence and conscious support of the system of those using it. If neglected for a period, a huge backlog of tedious work and a loss of valuable data for the budding organisation can result. As the organisation grows it’s vital that everyone with access to the database respects it and the work that has been undertaken to develop it in the first place. This is especially important to communicate in an organisation peopled by a changing cohort of participants.

SLF’s experience shows that the best and most effective way to engage people is around a project. From this activity springs needs, talents, skills, systems, processes, and protocols etc. In the early days this was a case of ‘attend to it as you go’ – very often it translated to ‘make it up as you go’ along. These days there is a wealth of considered thinking and tested processes to lean on plus templates and tools which serve extremely well. In this period, SLF began to be invited to contribute to the wider discussion taking place. Having developed a strong focus on networking and linking, on community engagement and voluntary participation and especially on engaging the ‘awakening mainstream’ this then led to a close involvement in the development of, and then participation in, the ‘Community engagement’ focussed Colloquia (2004) seeking to identify the underlying pedagogies (frameworks and processes) behind the work of successful sustainability facilitation. This subsequently led to the establishment of the project now running: Professional Development Support for Sustainability Educators, feeding in as one of the many contributions to the current Education Round Table process.


Home based Office. The home based office – a common starting point for many grass roots initiatives – was immediately equipped with its own phone line and some office equipment. Over two years, first one and then two people, working cheek to jowl sharing the one phone line and the one computer, presented a quite professional and convincing operation that set the Foundation on its feet.

Business Research and Development. The first area to get moving was Business Research and Development (BR&D) which later became the Enterprise platform. From day one the Foundation was committed to addressing the needs of enterprises and R & D initiatives to commercialise their products and help them build more viable businesses although capacity to assist was extremely limited The desire to help create green jobs was high. The BR&D Unit conducted sounding boards, undertook consultations, developed course content and explored ways to be effective in this area. It was one factor that clearly distinguished SLF from other environmental groups and one that naturally enhanced relationships with exhibitors at the events.

Events. For SLF, running its own public meetings and events and participating in others with stalls or as speakers was and remains a key engagement strategy. Not only do events mean a gathering of people, the work involved in making them happen has a strong bonding effect internally. The Foundation grew from the wellspring of commitment and enthusiasm generated by the early events combined with the actions of the initiators of SLF. This pool of passion for sustainable change was fed via many meetings and events including the inaugural meeting in 1999; a major public meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall in 2000; running stalls and setting up ‘Sustainability Features’ at numerous community events; sharing SLF celebrations; launching ‘Sustainability Week’; and boldly initiating sustainability related Think Tank meetings and workshops on ‘Education’, ‘Stewardship’, ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Water’. A regular update sheet emailed to the growing support base showed the list of events and initiatives to always be on the move.

Interest Groups. Special interest groups kicked off immediately and continued to grow in number as the awareness of the issues involved in living sustainably on the planet also grew. These groups provided an entre point to people who were fully focussed on a single issue and could participate in the Foundation just through their chosen group. These groups provided ‘hooks’ for engagement.

Sustainability Week. This special ‘week’ was launched in November 2001 coinciding with SLF’s first Fair. It represented the first serious attempt to work collaboratively with others and was ‘owned’ collectively by the six or eight environment groups and sympathetic organisations participating with SLF the auspice body. Over time and despite efforts to the contrary, it become evident that SLF was the ‘driver’ of the project and so become the logical owner of it in the emergence of the Calendar Platform. Its purpose was to proactively catalyse people and groups everywhere to do something extra in the week to highlight an aspect of sustainable living. It was concluded that a week wasn’t long enough so, in 2003, it was extended to a month and grew naturally into a year long calendar promoting sustainability related events nationally.


100% Voluntary Participation. They say the way a thing is ‘born’ indicates something about the course it will take. Initially, voluntary participation was the only option and SLF was driven by sheer enthusiasm for the task although certain expectations were harboured that funds would eventuate to pay some core operating expenses and wages. Without realising it, SLF had entered the Gifting Economy and from Day 1 started busily building credits. Six years later, still largely run on voluntary participation without funds to pay core staff, SLF acknowledges the struggle but also recognises and loves the strengths of participation freely given.

Empowerment and Inclusivity. The SLF culture and organisational identity are described and cherished as involving: Collaboration, Cooperation, Consensus, and Collective action, Authenticity, Idealism, Commitment, Determination, Optimism, Generosity, Positivity and Inclusivity. People who want to contribute are matched with one of the many areas (operational or platform) now available within SLF. They are encouraged to take as much leadership as they wish in the context of cooperation, teamwork and respecting the structures, culture and accumulated systems, tools and wisdom collected to date. If someone puts forward a proposal for a good idea complementary to the SLF Vision and Objectives, they are strongly encouraged and supported to run with it providing they can also take responsibility to nourish and work to resource it, build the team, integrate it, collaborate and so on.

Membership. Building the membership base was a key activity just from the point of view of paying the phone bill in the very early days. For any incorporated association, membership is a legal requirement and to meet the criteria in some funding applications it is vital to have a certain minimum number of members. As memberships all fall due at the end of the organisation’s financial year that means the membership goes back to almost zero depending on how many ‘life’ members you have. Some organisations have come to the conclusion that the effort to maintain a healthy membership base outweighs the total benefit derived from it and that they are better off working on campaigns for donations and direct debit contributions from their supporters. These, however, usually involve extensive costs in time, energy and resources sending out huge amount of paper based hard mail. SLF members are highly valued and central to the organisation but sometimes neglected due to lack of resources.

Dealing with the Critics. It is not just things like databases that need to be consciously and actively supported but, indeed, all the systems, processes and deliberately constructed culture that is already in place. This is not to say that things can’t be improved, but so often the biggest critics are also the most ignorant of what’s in place, what’s been tried and tested and the reasons for doing something one way and not another. Dealing with the critics can be an issue in itself. Whilst it can be valuable to dedicate a reasonable amount of time to listening sometimes the best thing can be to placate them. Listening to critics and working to address valid criticisms has not only helped SLF build its credibility but also, consequently, its confidence.

The Formation Phase established threads that form the ongoing fabric of SLF including its grass roots leadership, ideas generation, expectation setting, empowerment and inclusivity, membership, legal and financial structures, strategic planning and networking. Templates and tools were developed as needed. Only special interest tools have been commented upon here.

Expansion Phase 2002 – 2003





*SLF Management Committee
*Sub Committees – hands on
*Web Site

*Platforms:- Centre; Enterprise; Festival; Focus groups; Calendar;
*Commercial Engagement through Enterprise and Festival

*The Gifting Economy

* Primary Screen

Figure 4: Expansion Phase - structure, activities, values and tools


Management Committee. As SLF expanded the Steering Committee grew to a more formal Management Committee with specific roles and management responsibilities executed through a number of functional, hands on sub committees.

Collaboration. The initiators of SLF was surprised to discover, back in 2000, that some ENGOs were concerned at the emergence of this new organisation fearing competition for the meagre support that was on offer. Having spent three decades competing with each other and being made to feel ‘grateful for crumbs’, many were hard to convince that collaboration was a more ‘sustainable’ approach; that together we could grow the cake. While collaboration was not only essential and logical for an unfunded organisation and a patently intelligent way to amplify the message, SLF’s early expectation that sister organisations would leap at the chance to collaborate had to undergo some revision. The reality SLF found when examining this premise was that organisations with reasonable funding were mostly fully focussed on delivering the outcomes required by the funding contract. They also did not necessarily perceive any advantage in collaboration since they considered themselves independently sufficient. Or perhaps they did not know how to manage a good collaborative effort or understand and value the potential outcomes. SLF stolidly persevered with ‘Think Tank’ Meetings and other events. They eventually began to win respect by developing a range of platforms that were increasingly hard to resist ‘offerings’. SLF organised itself into 6 distinct ‘platform’ areas described below. Although agonisingly slow from SLF’s end, the perception of ‘value’ began to sink in and progress blossomed in an environment that appeared very barren. In those early days, there was no Commissioner for Sustainable Development, there was no Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, there was no Sustainability Fund and there was certainly no authority called Sustainability Victoria. That these provisions exist today demonstrate that things really are moving.

Activities (the Platforms)

The Centre. The Sustainable Living Centre came closest yet to achieving its vision when located in the Building Display Centre promoting sustainable building and other related products and services.

Enterprise. Graduating from BR&D Focus Group to Platform, Enterprise has a full catalogue of concepts..

Festival. In February 2003 the Sustainable Living Festival was first held in the heart of Melbourne at Federation Square where it annually attracts well over 100,000 visitors over the three days, also supports and promotes sustainability-related enterprises giving exhibitors – ‘for profits’ and ‘not for profits’ –the opportunity to showcase their products, speak to interested people about the mentality behind their enterprise, and the underlying issues, meanings and passion in their work. In an exciting and colourful atmosphere of celebration, performance, art, music and good food, the whole ‘sustainability thing’ is made more attractive and engaging whilst not diluting the message. With a packed program of speakers targeting the awakening mainstream, the ‘future thinkers forums’ also reach those willing to engage in deeper debates 80% of survey respondents acknowledged that the Festival inspired them to think more about sustainability, to think about sustainability and consider their actions, or provided them with help to take action.

The Focus Groups. The less structured Focus Groups allow people to discuss, present and test ideas, initiate action, establish interest and express their own deeper concerns and passions in their specialised interest group. People can engage, contribute, network in their own way, set their own pace and objectives and, at the same time, learn about the connections between their focus area and other aspects of sustainability.

Calendar. A web based calendar enabling people to post their own events; it has been developed to require little management by SLF other than to ensure the sustainability related authenticity of the site.

Sustainability Online. Starting out in 2002 as a web based directory for all ‘green’ products, Sustainability Online drew on expertise particularly in the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) to decide on the best approach settling for product rather than company. Subsequently joining forces with the Ethical Buyers Guide it went on to become another SLF platform: the Sustainable Living Directory


The Gifting Economy. Definitely a glowing example of the Gifting Economy in action, SLF provides all its services free to those wanting to participate in any of its platforms. Having thus apparently earned some credits in the Gifting Economy, SLF was generously offered opportunities to receive. Examples include (i) space in the Building Display Centre enjoying two and a half years there on a peppercorn rental overlooking the wonderful Fitzroy Gardens. (ii) support of some highly talented graphic designers enabling SLF to present a professional face to the world and (iii) free access to the current premises in central Melbourne.


Primary screen. The SLF Own Practice team ensure the authenticy of the event is not compromised through commercial engagement including any inappropriate sponsor or exhibitor, this refers to participants which are not the ‘leading-edge’ in sustainability and don’t reflect the values we feel are crucial to the sustainable living changes being promoted. The primary screen excludes any abhorrent and patently unsustainable practices but additionally, SLF undertakes a deliberate ‘positive search’ for more appropriate partners.

Consolidation Phase 2004 – 2005





*Operational Areas

*Mobilisation Platform –
The Race to Sustainability
*Directory Platform
*Virtual Enterprise Incubator

Stronger relationships, increased credibility and confidence

*Natural Systems emulation
*Positive Search and Screening
*Dual Tracking

Figure 5. Consolidation Phase: structure, activities, values and tools


Council. With a diminished expectation of hands on involvement, the SLF Council’s refined role is now one of sounding board and review tackling the sticking points and the tough policy making areas. Many councillors still manage to also have a close involvement with one or more areas of the organisation.

Operational Areas. Although the Operational side of SLF was developed into a strong workable structure, lack of resources means it has to be flexible and is in a constant state of flux. Comprising six clear areas: Executive; Partnerships; Own Practice; People; Finance and Communications, it covers the breadth of the organisation and is proposed as a workable model for many similar organisations.


Directory. Comprises two parts – the Green Pages is a vetted list of enterprises and organisations akin to the Yellow Pages but about sustainability; and the Consumer Guide assists consumers with key questions: To do with the need for it; what it’s made of and how; how reusable is it; what becomes of it when it’s thrown away? Featuring the accreditation and ratings of other organisations, the online Directory gives the consumer some guidance on the sustainability features and behaviour of all products and enterprises (the Directory is currently expanding from its existing comprehensive coverage of supermarket products) It highlights issues related to ethical buying and information about relevant campaigns.

Mobilisation Platform. Still finding its feet as a Platform, the proposal to support the ‘Race to Sustainability’ has been passed by the SLF Council and work is well underway to get it moving.

Enterprise. Most recently the SLF Enterprise platform commenced the establishment of a virtual incubator via the initial building of a ‘Sustainable Enterprise Network’ (SEN). Regular SEN dinner events highlight valuable guest speakers and opportunities to address issues common to the network. Today Enterprise also takes up the challenge of bringing enterprise and sustainability values together promoting the efficient management of energy, water, general consumption, waste, and behaviour towards each other and the environment. The program in 2006 is set to include referrals and linking, piggy backing to other service providers, undertaking limited consultations and mentoring through SEN participants


Establishing Credibility. While still occasionally dealing with critics, blockers and gatekeepers, the rhetoric of government is coming more into line with the modus operandi of SLF, i.e. ‘community engagement’, ‘behaviour change’ and ‘reaching all Victorians’ assisting the task of continuing to build SLF’s credibility.


Own Practice. Using Natural Systems Emulation. Growing from the concept of ‘walking the talk’, a natural systems framework for accelerating sustainable change has been developed which will enable participants in the Race to Sustainability to improve their effectiveness. This ‘Eco-ID’ framework promotes sustainability features and behaviour and encourages continual improvement. It also contributes to the positive search (see below). Own Practice is the operational area responsible for the guidelines, tools and standards that represent and equip SLF to choose the paths to walk. The Own Practice team have designed a “Pyramid of Understanding” (POU) to make sustainability pathways more accessible to the awakening mainstream, and are developing a meta-framework based on Natural systems emulation to enable any organisation to determine its own POU and pathways, selecting from a diverse array of Natural systems tools such as Permaculture, The Natural Step & Bio-mimicry.

Positive Search and Screening. As a highly collaborative organisation and one where our credibility relies on SLF’s authenticity as a genuine promoter of sustainable living, the issue of who it collaborates with has been one that has received a lot of attention. SLF is therefore involved in commercial engagement whereby payment is made for inclusion in the event promoting the ‘exemplars’ of what is really good. Initially a ‘best of sector’ approach was used but it was soon found that this could either equate to mediocrity or, worse, some very unsustainable practices. It was not good enough to look just at product without considering the parent company. So a “Primary Screen” was developed - a negative screening process that excludes the unwanted. It was soon found to be better to emphasise the positive search rather than the negative screen. As Philip Sutton explains “We look for what or who we would like at the Festival or as sponsors? We create an image in our mind of what a sustainable society might look like, and then we go hunting. We look for any black mark against this candidate that would exclude them up (negative screen) and also examine if the candidate is really good enough to warrant us holding them up as exemplars of sustainability”.

The next step forward with this is to develop and utilise better networks and search routines for winnowing the vital seed which will also have the effect of making the negative & positive screening appear less restricting. This will help reinforce internally in SLF the importance of making sure the good seed is being selected before even starting to winnow. The valuable role of winnowing for seed and harvesting a good crop sits well with SLF as it draws on bio-mimicry for guidance - ‘we sow, grow & create so that we can keep creating’. Philip Sutton points out that “Importantly, in the case of sustainability, we have identified an alchemical step of unveiling vital seed. Thus we can not only search for good stuff - we can promote the creation of it” which is where the Enterprise platform’s role comes in.

Dual-Tracking. Philip Sutton, as President of the SLF Council, has identified “Dual Tracking” as a way of managing the natural tension between what has to be and can realistically be done now and what we are working towards. He says, “If we are to be effective in the real world and we want to achieve sustainability and a desirable future - we have to juggle two worlds - the world of immediate pressures and imperatives and the world we are trying to create. If we don't recognise these two imperatives and the need to take each of them seriously in their own way, then we can fall into three traps: 1) we get caught up in the here-and-now 2) we get fixated on potential and possibilities and fail to cope with the here and now or 3).. We try to deal with both the here-and-now and the creation of a desirable future but we feel that the only way to do this is to create a compromise between the two. This means we end up pursuing options that neither deliver particularly good current outcomes nor create the future that we really wanted.

In the methodology that we are using for dual-tracking the two tracks are called the ‘improvement track’ and the ‘transformation track’. For SLF the transformation track is the one that we use especially to pursue the rapid achievement of sustainability for society and the environment. The improvement track is the one that we use especially to improve the short term survival of SLF as an organisation. By having two clear management tracks we avoid the first and second traps above. But how do we avoid the third trap? This is achieved by making sure that people acknowledge the validity of all other tracks and have an active dialogue between the two tracks based on the principle of no major trade- offs. This ensures that actions taken to meet the need of one track do not result in major problems for the other track.”


Building an Organisation to Accelerate Sustainable Change

The core process has been analysed in the diagram below (figure 6) showing how SLF anchors its work in ‘Living’: Sustainability is about the way we live; the underlying strategy and every platform addresses ‘sustainable living’ behaviour change. SLF has demonstrated that it is possible to build an organisation from the ground up with no financial resources to speak of and to organise, manage and run it with the voluntary participation of a core group of people with commitment, skills and vision; people who take the time to work through the challenges, discussing for as long as it takes and coming to agreement.

The number of people that continue to flow into SLF at a time when other organisations are bemoaning the fact the volunteers are getting harder to find is testimony to the fact that the issue of dangerous climate change and all its sub issues loom large in peoples’ minds and that SLF engages them reasonably well. It engages peoples’ passions and provides opportunities for personal involvement over a wide range of areas. Evidence for this can most easily be seen with the Sustainable Living Festival which, each year, brings together hundreds of people – organisers, volunteers, exhibitors, partners, artists, performers, community groups – 99% of whom are participating completely voluntarily.

The key attributes of SLF are that it is highly collaborative with all sorts of organisations, very accessible to the grass roots and strongly optimistic in its outlook and endeavours. It has a good grasp of the evolving needs in society, a capacity for entrepreneurial invention and some distinct competencies in the community engagement field which are needed to create a competitive advantage in the market place when vying for attention and voluntary participation on a large scale.

However, the downside is the struggle aspect endured over these first six years. In this respect SLF is paradoxically ‘unsustainable’; ‘burning people’, affecting health and relationships. Although the situation continues to change, the struggle and vulnerability was still in evidence with the unwelcome relocation at the end of 2005. Whilst it moved SLF from East Melbourne into the centre of the city and whilst it still demonstrates the Gifting Economy at work, the disruption and costs involved were hard to carry especially with the work of the next Festival well under way. As an organisation trail-blazing new ways to operate and adding to the diversity of the community sector, SLF is still delicate. It needs to become more robust in order to accomplish the challenge it has set itself. In 2004 SLF officially adopted the Race to Sustainability. It underpins every platform. It was launched at the 05 Festival and is set to move into gear in 2006. SLF needs to attract and seek more financial support, pay some core workers and be able to afford secure premises.

Over the next five year period SLF expects to be firmly involved in relevant think tanks and consultative committees; win and also offer ‘rewards’ in the Gifting Economy, encourage and support the proliferation of many new grassroots organisations and to achieve the key goal of identifying the Sustainability Champions throughout Victoria and, through them, mobilising “the whole community”.

Figure 6. Overarching process, principles and strategy of SLF

An organisation capable of taking on such a bold and far reaching vision requires skill, time and energy. SLF wants to do whatever it can to speed things up. The SLF path has been fascinating, has visited many of this nation’s cultural communities, has built strong momentum and will keep allowing many to follow. It is hoped that the key elements and learnings from SLF’s experience will assist others to fast track their development along their own pathways and that we can foster the proliferation of grass roots sustainability focused organisations commencing in Victoria.


Lakoff G (2004), Don’t think of an Elephant. The Rockwell Institute.

Chelsea Green Publishing; Accessed 27/11/05

Sutton P (2004), SLF Council Working Document. Melbourne.

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