As I may have noted recently, the subjects to blog about that I look for somewhere in cyberspace are, as my grandchildren say about many things, boring. The volume of words (both in loudness and quantity) keeps growing, but the speakers still do not get the point: sustainability does not have same meaning as what virtually all messages carry. No matter how many times someone talks about what they are doing for sustainability, using green or sustainable or even sustainability to describe a new product or new program to inform their customers, they are still in the reducing unsustainability world of business-almost-as-usual.
It’s not quite business-as-usual because awareness of the unintended consequences of the way they went about their business in the past has finally sunk in. If it hasn’t sunk in, it is being talked about at higher levels in the firms than it used to be. The number of books and consultants that tout sustainability as the new way toward profits and market share is enormous. I use the pejorative term, tout, purposely because I believe that the authors and consultants know (or should know) at some level that the profit part of their spiel may be valid, but the sustainability part is bogus.
Almost without exception what firms advertise as their sustainability strategy and set of resultant offerings will not and cannot restore the Earth to a condition that could be called sustainable. All that they are doing is slowing down, maybe, their burdens compared to the impacts they produced in the past. The kicker is hidden in the implicit goal of growth and a more commanding position in the marketplace. We see stories of climate change deniers everyday, most frequently associated with the political right. Executives of the firms pushing sustainability are deniers as well, but without so much political coloration. They are unaware or denying that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can continue to provide. The excess is, like climate change, subject to much uncertainly, but the best estimates start with about one and one-half Earths and go up from there. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China and India and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels as we “enjoy.”
Don’t read this as meaning I am opposing these efforts. They are very important. Without them, the velocity we are approaching a system collapse would be much faster. It is the suggestion that they have anything to do with sustainability that fires me up. They are part of the fundamental market strategy of a liberal, free market that always tries to hide from the public the externalities (the unseen unintended consequences of the economy) tied up with the goods and services. Whether intentional or not, the road to high profits has always been to push the hidden costs onto the public. Sustainability strategies do exactly this. They ignore the systemic effects of what they do to produce and market their goods. Further, the way they advertise and publicize their programs lulls the public into believing that they are taking care of their future.
Sustainability, as used in all these corporate contexts, conveys some sort of promise to protect the future, but never carries any explicit message of what future is being envisioned or how their products will do that. The promise, whether implicit or explicit in the messages the consuming public receives, absolves the consumers of responsibility in the matter. I am reminded of President Obama’s intention to win the future made in his last State of the Union speech. The future cannot be won; it can only be created through the well informed, purposeful actions by everyone, consumers and producers or citizens and politicians.
For illustration, I picked a handful of headlines and story-lines I selected from the several hundred items that collect on my RSS reader everyday. This is not a scientific sample, but I tried to be unbiased in my selection.
> Four Steps to Improving Profits through Sustainability
> Nike, the world’s largest sportswear manufacturer, plans to make data relating to the sustainability of its operations publicly available via the web.
> PPR Group — the parent group behind high-end labels like Gucci, Puma, Yves Saint Laurent, and Stella McCartney — is fast on its way to becoming the sustainable trendsetter of the future. The group recently launched PPR Home, a major sustainability plan in order to offset its entire 2010 footprint, an estimated 98,729 tons of carbon. With an annual budget of more than $14 million and a multinational platform, PPR Home has the potential to change the way we think of sustainability and fashion.
> Using a new product scorecard, IKEA hopes to make its stock greener so that by 2015 the retail chain can classify 90 percent of the goods it sells as being “more sustainable.”
> Method, a leading innovator in cleaning products, lays out the backstory of its success and sheds light on why it’s important to make soap more sustainable.
> With Sustainability Report, BP Seeks Permission to Resume at Gulf of Mexico–a sustainability review for the year 2010 has been officially released by the BP that is primarily focused on earning back trust and building a sustainable BP for the future.
This last one was a few lines away from this one with a totally different message.
> Less than 50 Years of Oil Left, HSBC Warns.
The two items, mentioning IKEA and Method, were careful in labeling their efforts as a relative improvement, consistent with reducing unsustainability. In general, however, it is very difficult to get any sense of what kind of sustainability these items point to. The confusion spills over into the marketplace and discourages consumers from thinking more than superficially about the meaning. We have witnessed long and bitter fights over the terms used to label product. What is organic? “Humane” food is another current issue. It is more than time to begin to clarify the terms used to convey the sense of sustainability in play. The consumers deserve to understand what they are being told. There is much more at stake than market share. The health of the Earth and its life, which is really what sustainability is all about, depends on both the producers and the consumers understanding at least what direction they are going: toward a sustainability, away from it, or just holding steady. Continuing to use any of the terms connected to sustainability without regard to the misinformation and confusion they cause is both irresponsible and dangerous.

One Reply to “Still Sending Misleading Messages”

  1. John
    Good stuff – thank you. I share your critique of ‘sustainability’ in the senses you describe.
    It seems to me though, thinking about the dynamics of change, that this rather unthinking ‘adoption’ (in fact co-option) of ‘sustainability’ is inevitable in many cases. One reason being that while some executives in a business may fully acknowledge the deeper meaning of sustainability, they are constrained by circumstances, from peer pressure to shareholder pressure, to water down their ambition – at least in public.
    The real danger it seems to me is that ‘opinion formers’ believe this lite-sustainability message. Hence the importance of thoughtful commentators, journalists who expose such ‘greenwash’ and activists who refuse to take these messages at face value.
    While such criticism must be intensely frustrating for business people who honestly believe they are doing the best they can in almost impossible circumstances, it is essential to keep challenging them in this way.
    BTW – is there a negative missing here: “Make no mistake that I am opposing these efforts”?
    All the best

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