Earlier this week, Walmart announced their plans to unveil a new sustainability index that will grade various suppliers and products by a range of environmental and sustainable factors. The move will allow consumers to easily discern the sustainability of one product over another. Walmart, the nation’s largest retail giant, has had its fair share of criticism over the years, but is taking sustainability more seriously these days. It has even sought the guidance of Yvon Chouinard, environmental advocate and founder of the gear and clothing company Patagonia.
The unlikely pair have been working closely on establishing criteria for sustainable clothing, which is difficult given there’s not enough organic cotton in the world to supply Walmart’s needs. The goal is to stop the idea of consuming-discarding. Chouinard is determined to help companies like Walmart change they way they think about our resources. But you won’t find him simply resting on the promise of sustainability. Why? Because there is no such thing.
According to Chouinard, sustainability is “a process, not a real goal and all you can do is work towards it…that’s just the way it is.” Chouinard argues that fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base, not solely to their customers, shareholders or employees. If one definition of sustainability means meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, then Chouinard’s opinion is spot on. The problem is that the concept of sustainability, like that of “going green”, needs to be more than just a short-term marketing ploy. It has to mean committing to a long-term plan that assesses a business’s impact on the Earth and aims to correct it.
Chouinard is a realist, a renegade and a totally different kind of businessman. His motivation stems from his own pessimistic view that the world and the human race itself are deteriorating. Through his travels he observes the ongoing destruction of Earth’s natural resources first hand and believes that helping to solve environmental ills is just a part of doing business on this planet.
After all, how will plants operate when coal is gone? What will paper mills use when the forest has been clear cut and not sufficiently replanted? How will factories survive when water becomes so scarce that it can only be used for drinking? How will we produce goods? These questions give more meaning to the quote etched on the front door of Patagonia’s headquarters, “there is no business to be done on a dead planet.”
Chouinard is working hard to change Patagonia and influence other companies by not just talking the talk, but by being an agent of change. He doesn’t oversimplify sustainability and he recognizes that it is not for the faint of heart. Even he wasn’t sure in the beginning that he could run a company for the good of the environment. But his determination and love for the Earth has led him down a path of becoming an example of what could be. You can’t help but be inspired by his pessimism, prompted to action by his experiences and challenged to prove that sustainability is possible, even profitable.