The word ‘sustainability’ is everywhere. If you check the top 100 most influential brands, every one of them claims to be sustainable. What was once a niche concept has exploded into everyday life – and everything now needs to be sustainable. From coffee cups to clothes, hotels, restaurants, bars, and cafes. Even schools have become sustainable, and airports are striving to become carbon neutral. Everywhere you look people are trying to green their business or industry in some way or another. Sustainability has become so ingrained in our culture that many people fail to realise there might be something wrong with its widespread adoption as a catch-all term for anything good for society or the environment. There is nothing inherently wrong with sustainability as a concept, but like any ideology, it can be taken too far.
Sustainability’s dark side
Sustainability has become synonymous with being eco-friendly and climate friendly. It’s a great idea that focuses on reducing our impact on the environment as much as possible to give our planet a chance at lasting into the future. The problem is that people often use sustainability as a marketing slogan without making any environmental or climate-friendly changes. Let’s take the fashion industry as an example. Many brands have moved towards using more sustainable fabrics like organic cotton or alternative fibres like hemp. While that’s a fantastic use of resources, many brands are still using harmful dyes to colour their products. Some dyes are so toxic that if you spill them into your house, the house will have to be demolished. Other, less harmful chemicals release harmful substances into the ground like ammonia that can cause serious damage to wildlife. Another factor that is often overlooked is sustainability is much more than just limiting ones environmental impact: organisations must consider a much more holistic view including the Ethical and Economic impact of decisions.
Another problem with sustainability being an all-encompassing marketing term is that it allows companies to greenwash themselves. Greenwashing is when a company uses sustainability as a marketing ploy without actually making any changes to its business. This can be done by changing the products’ names or packaging, adding a green label, or just using the term ‘sustainable’ a lot in their marketing materials. Greenwashing is a serious problem because it gives consumers a false sense of security and makes them feel good about a company they might want to buy from without having any real proof that their products are actually helpful to the environment.
One of sustainability’s biggest problems is that it’s often approached as a consumer choice. This means that people who want to be more environmentally conscious can shop ethically and reduce their impact wherever they can. This is great, but it also means that companies can exploit consumers who want to be more environmentally conscious by making their products seem more sustainable than they actually are. Let’s look at the food industry. Many companies have made positive changes to their business by going vegan, free-from, and organic. While these choices are great for the environment and for health, some companies have exploited consumers’ desire to be healthier by branding their products with misleading labels like ‘vegan’ or ‘gluten-free’. This not only misleads consumers but it also waters down the meaning of ‘vegan’ and ‘gluten-free’ to the point of near meaninglessness.
One of the key tenants of sustainability is reducing waste. This makes sense because the more we can reduce waste, the better off we all are. But how much waste reduction is too much? Many businesses are going so far with waste reduction that they are actually limiting creativity. Think about how many hotels now only provide one type of soap per guest. What if one guest wants a fragrance-free soap while the other guest wants a lavender soap? What if you want two different soaps in your room? How about if you want to include a special handmade soap you created yourself? There’s nothing wrong with providing one type of soap per guest per room, but when it’s the only option provided, it limits creativity.
Where are we
Sustainability’s wide-ranging benefits are undeniable. It’s an ideology that has helped our planet in countless ways and will continue to help us reduce our carbon footprint as well as address wider supply chain challenges. But as an all-encompassing term, it has some drawbacks. It’s important to recognise these drawbacks so we can make sure sustainability is used for good rather than for deception. It’s up to consumers to make sure they are not falling for greenwashing or being limited by the idea of sustainability in whatever industry or area we work in. It’s our job to make sure that sustainability doesn’t become too much of a good thing.
If you would like to learn more about this subject or speak to an expert in this area, please reach out to Sustainability Manager Edward Court Edward.email@example.com or Sustainability Partner Allison Ford-Langstaff Allison.Ford-Langstaff@4cassociates.com.