It seems that virtually everyone, from nano-scale non-profits to massive multinationals, claims to be pursuing an agenda of “sustainability.” But while the term may be de rigueur, the practice is a little harder to pin down. And that’s left many scratching their heads: What, exactly, does sustainability mean?

One Madison, Wisconsin-based organization has an answer that defines sustainability not only in words, but in deeds. Sustain Dane, founded in 2009, positions sustainability as a broad premise that includes “a just economy, a strong community, and a healthy planet”—what the group calls “Big S Sustainability.” And its programming aims to achieve these goals.


Given the broad nature of the group’s definition, it’s not surprising that the programming is also varied. One branch, MPower, helps businesses and schools reduce their CO2 emissions to fight climate change. MPower projects range from simple changes, like replacing light switches with occupancy sensors, to large-scale energy retrofits. These efforts result in some $1,689,000 in annual savings and 26,540 tons of CO2 avoided, according to the group.

Another example is the group’s annual Badger Bioneers conference, which takes place this year in Madison on November 10. Like its big-sister conference in California, the event is founded on the belief that small, individual actions can add up to change on a global scale. Bioneers features speakers and networking designed to share skills and ideas in service of “Big S Sustainability,” with an emphasis on bringing the learning out of the conference rooms and into the community.


Other programs at Sustain Dane include establishing outdoor classrooms for school children, an arts-based program designed to help neighborhoods explore the themes of sustainability and “study circles,” which bring neighbors together to discuss food systems, climate change, and other issues.

What binds all these disparate activities together (besides their relationship to “Big S Sustainability”), is the unique approach the group takes toward activism. Many organizations in similar spaces define specific goals and pursue, for example, lobbying or legal agendas, to achieve them. Sustain Dane adopts more flexible tactics: The group defines its role as “facilitators, educators, innovators, organizers, entrepreneurs, and networkers.” This nimble approach allows the group in many different places at once. And perhaps that’s a fitting symbol of the multi-faceted problems—and opportunities—that “sustainability” encompasses.


“Sustainability is about wellbeing for everyone,” explains Jessie Lerner, Executive Director. “It’s about surviving and thriving. Being resourceful. The opportunity to live the life we want to live. It’s about clean air and clean water. A living wage for everyone. Working together to create the community we want. It’s about balance. It’s about all of this and more for generations to come.”