The Race for Sustainability

It was obvious 5 years ago that the term replacing “green,” environmentalism, or “save the planet” would be sustainability.

The signs were obvious. In manufacturing, energy, and agriculture the shift had been underway for some time. But the “s-word” was popping up in unanticipated fields like financial services, municipal government, hospitality, and healthcare.

The driver: consumer attitude. When people are asked whether they want a product that’s “green” or “organic” they hesitate. Experience tells them it’s going to be somehow a sacrifice of quality and higher priced to boot. Not a great choice unless you’re in the minority of the market that wants to save the planet at any cost.

But the term “sustainable” refers to the concept of renewable or the ability to be perpetual. A UN commission in 1987 established a definition that holds today,
“meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Consumers sign on to that thinking readily. So readily, in fact, that the future is going to be full of battles over the ability to use the term.

A conflict in an active segment of my practice is a good example. Organic food producers would like to claim the sustainable term as their own. An organization called the Leopold Academy applied to the American National Standards Institute a few years ago to establish a standard, a definition, of “sustainable agriculture.” When forming the group that would put forward the criteria they pointedly omitted the largest food producers in the US – production agriculture. You know, the farmers that use chemicals and genetics to be the most productive on the planet and which account for well over 80% of the food production in our country.

The US Department of Agriculture intervened and the Leopold Academy agreed to put 11 production ag representatives on the committee where they were outnumbered 3-1 by organic producers and environmental group representatives. The new participants tried to turn the standards to what’s known as the “triple bottom line” – defining sustainable as not only environmental but based on
economic and human capital issues as well. The short version is people – planet – profit. The discussions continued for some months but last fall the production agriculture reps pulled out of the talks.

Today it may be impossible to establish a standard until two sides of the debate can sit down in more equitable numbers to reach consensus on the definition. It’s a huge issue that could lead to more than standards and labeling. With a political overlay the standards would eventually translate to regulations.

Look for many more debates, discussions, and organizations positioning themselves as “sustainable” in the years ahead. Look for them to use the triple bottom line as the standard. In your own industry or field, no matter the level of environmental sensitivity, look for
sustainability to be a major issue in the future.