In an article for fortune.com, famous brand fashion manufacturer and long standing environmental activist company Patagonia has made their case why they believe they should not use the word sustainable:
„…At Patagonia, we don’t use the word “sustainable.” Why? Because we recognize we are part of the problem. Previously, we set ourselves the target of carbon neutrality by 2025. But purchasing offsets to get us there doesn’t erase the footprint we create and won’t save us in the long run. We must first put the weight of our business behind drastically cutting emissions across the full length of our supply chain…“
Who could not agree to that? Well, actually us, when you look at what Patagonia actually says.
Very very important note: We love Patagonia. They are a fellow B Corporation, moreover their founder Yvon Chouinard has been a direct role model for our own business development for a very long time now. And we actually agree with the verbatim: „one does not erase his footprint by compensation“. By the way: what does „previously, we set ourselves the target of carbon neutrality…“ mean? You stopped doing so? Because you must first put the „weight behind cutting emissions“. Isn’t that a contradiction in itself? This article was written for the sake of advancing the argument for sustainability. And how often do we have the opportunity to discuss those matters with one of the best in their field?
Anyway, whatever the reasoning behind this. We had our fair share in small success (e.g. reaching net CO2-neutrality in our supply chain in 2019) and huge remaining deficiencies (especially to become gross-neutral instead of net-neutral, meaning before CO2-compensation). Purchasing offsets is only the beginning of the change process for a sustainable environment, it is definitely not the end.
Here’s where we actually disagree substantially: we believe that the current failure of business to be sustainable in the sense of environment-neutrality actually requires us to redefine and mention the concept of sustainability more and more, not less and less.
„Sustainability“ is a necessary attitude
We use the term in a very traditional sense as Hans Carl von Carlowitz 1713 in his book Silvicultura oeconomica: sustainability means using resources (he meant forests back then) in a way that extracts only so much from the environment that nature can replenish. Or in broader terms: use nature only so much as it can regenerate on a long-term basis. Sustainability is the law of conservation of nature.
Of course we know that „sustainability“ has become a buzz word for greenwashers and marketing companies. Very much so. To the extent that it resembles „adventure“ (travels that are never dangerous) or „gourmet“ (menus that actually taste like dog food). Thus, some have tried to exchange it with new terms like „environment-neutrality“, „future-orientation“ or „grandchildren-compatible“ but all these new terms will suffer the same fate if they manage to become more popular. There is simply no prevention from being hijacked for a word. That’s why we don’t care so much about terms, it’s the context that matters.
The most important aspect of sustainability is quite often overlooked. It is not a goal! We agree with many critics that we as a species in general (and manufacturing companies in particular) will never be able to act in a way that will not harm our environment. It’s just physically impossible. But what we should and can do is harm the environment only so much that it can regenerate. This requires tremendous effort and a change of business processes for virtually all human activities and industries. And as usual, when we don’t know exactly how to do this technically and it’s quite certain that it means a change in lifestyle for all of us, we need an attitude and a willingness to act. And that attitude is what we call „sustainability“.
Sustainability can guide action – if you let it
To be very clear, this is not a marketing exercise. If we dropped our efforts for sustainability, our products could become easily 20% cheaper. That’s how much money it takes to even start to become a sustainable enterprise. We have no doubts why many companies feel they cannot afford to do it right.
As a manufacturing company we have quite a few buttons that we can push to reduce the trouble we cause:
- our products and their lifecycle: make it from renewable resources, sure. But keep in mind that also renewable resources are limited. We need forests for CO2 compensation, building materials and to maintain biodiversity – and crops for healthy food, bio fuels and biodiversity and so on. So all manufacturing businesses have to become local in their raw material supply.
- our production and all their outputs: Especially the unwanted ones matter the most. Water for example should be consumed as little as possible and only be returned in drinking water quality to the system. That’s something every company can do.
- our supply chain and your inputs: Germany has been outsourcing pollution to Africa and CO2-emissions to China for a very long time now. Buying stuff abroad does not ease up your impact on the planet. It just puts it in some sort of shadow bookkeeping system. What we can do: localise the supply chain and know your suppliers. Easy as that.
- Just don’t be an asshole: We don’t mean this as kind of cheap joke, it’s the social side of sustainability. Helping underserved people in your community is something every company can do.
- The working environment: We found it the most difficult task to organize efforts for sustainability in an efficient manner. It should be a task for everybody in a company from doorman to CEO. The biggest advancements in production that harm the environment substantially less came from our workers, not their managers.
You must have noticed that one button is missing in the above listing. We omitted it for a reason because we believe it needs to be handled with care.
Disruptive innovation? We better be careful
It is amazing to see how many people believe in technical innovations to save the planet. From electric cars and solar power to flying taxis and geo-engineering there is no shortage in ideas how to fix the climate crisis. We just want to mention one aspect here that is often overlooked.
While there can be no doubt that technology can help improve (and we do a fair bit of research ourselves), technology is not the same as progress!
Progress is improvement within the context of improving livelihoods for mankind and nature. Each measure has a clear value reference within a contextual framework of effectiveness in social and environmental terms. Innovation as understood by many does not have that framework. One example: Germany has been celebrating the opening of an electric car manufacturing facility near Berlin (Tesla). Really? In the 21st century we are still celebrating automotive plants. Sealing of acres of land and cutting down a whole forest driven by a billionaire with the kind support by billions of German taxpayers money. Seems nobody has taken the view that we need a new model for transportation, not new plants. Seems our cultural narrative is blindsiding us. Why? Go ask the Chileans.
And that leads to the probably most important thing about sustainability.
Sustainability is a normative reference framework
Two issues to begin with. Firstly, the environment is a crazy partner because unlike all human partners (or adversaries or friends or whatever you have to call them) nature does not negotiate with us. We do something and nature reacts. That unfortunately means that all our concepts of mediation, negotiation and compromise don’t work in the ecosphere. Apart from wanting and knowing being very interesting philosophical concepts, in relation to nature it only matters what we actually do in real life. Secondly, we have to accept the fact that warning and alarmism don’t help much. The Club of Rome report on climate change celebrates it’s 50th anniversary next year. And our emissions and output have been growing ever since at unprecedented rates. Another example is the Covid pandemic. Everything that happened has been foreseen by experts to an astonishing degree of accuracy. We just didn’t want to listen. Read Jared Diamonds groundbreaking book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and we will understand that human societies have been immune to warnings before. And still are, as always.
We have to stop externalizing pollution in a regional sense (having others cause pollution for us) and in a time perspective (pushing pollution and burdens to future generations).
We do not care so much about what the guy (assuming it was a man) on the Easter Islands thought when he was about to cut down the last tree in the 17th century. We are interested what was missing when a thousand trees were still growing and the decline was evident.
We suggest that what was missing (as is today) is a positive narrative and model about why it might be worth to preserve nature. A common ground the majority of the people can unite behind and that drives progress in the above sense.
The renown physicist Stephen Hawking, certainly not known for his mawkishness or sentimentality, stated that we are in danger of destroying ourselves out of greed and stupidity. The only thing that could save us would be empathy.
And that empathy can drive the technology and efforts to actually stop what we are doing right now. That’s why we have to talk more about sustainability, not less.
Dr. Marcel Pietsch is an economist and philosopher. He runs a B Corp. certified family business that focuses on the production and life cycle of sustainable products in chemistry (www.pnz.de)