Sustainability Lesson One: There Is No Such Thing

yvon chouinardEarlier 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.

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.

7 responses

  1. It’s funny to see how people love to play-up the “there’s no such thing as sustainability” headline when talking about Chouinard. Clearly, it’s not what he is saying. Quite simply, sustainability is not a “tangible thing” nor a destination. Rather, it is a path, a practice, a manner of being. When designing initiatives that embrace environmental and social responsibility, our job isn’t done — and sustainability isn’t “achieved” — when we execute. That single step is just one of many down a never-ending path. Sustainability is non-static, the path does not have an end. Rather, it’s a conscious commitment to conducting business (and ourselves) in a responsible matter, one in which we are accountable for what we do and how we do it.

  2. Neal, isn’t that exactly what Cory said in her article?
    I think the point of the headline is to get people to think “outside the box” in terms of sustainability. It starts with the headline and then leads into the rest of her point (that you generously reiterate), one that Cory made very well, in my opinion.

  3. Neal, I couldn’t agree more with your insights and believe we are all saying the same thing. The goal of this article is to get people to think less about the terms themselves, like sustainability or green, and understand them given their own frame of reference. Stating that there is no such thing as sustainability, in my opinion, levels the playing field, starts us at ground zero and disarms people. For me, accepting this fact, oddly brought me some relief and allowed me to pursue sustainability on my own terms.

  4. I wish people would use words in ways that make sense. Then we’d have fewer senseless arguments.
    “Sustaining” is a process.
    “Sustainability” is a prerequisite to the process of sustaining.
    “Sustained” is a real goal.

  5. “…there’s not enough organic cotton in the world to supply Walmart’s needs.”
    On a more practical level, we need to find alternatives to cotton, and quickly. Organic is not the answer; it used nearly as much water as chemical cotton. And if the money spent to convert to organic was spent on reducing the post-purchase care requirements of garments it would be a much more effective move on the path of sustainability.
    Nettle being cultivated in Europe has great promise. And, as a plug for my own work, Himalayan nettle, can make a small but meaningful contribution, and has great positive social impact through the generation of income for marginalized mountain communities that collect the wild-growing plant.
    We must all press for alternatives to cotton and reduce our consumption by 75-90%.

  6. i recycle everything possible but i have found no way to recycle or reuse the heavy plastic that chips,cookies,candies,freezer items etc come in. they do not break down and as a crafter, i cant believe there is no way to use this form of plastic.

  7. I can see the message behind this article that achieving sustainability is a process, and that merely stamping a “sustainability” or “going green” marketing spin on everything does not mean that company/org is indeed moving towards sustainability. As a marketing professional myself I can recognize marketing spins when I see them. But to say there is “no such thing as sustainability” is a bit trite and cliche. Indeed, there is such thing and yes its a process. The marketing spins on practices themselves that are by their very nature unsustainable is what really should be of concern. USA, for instance, has always both hisotrically and over past decade taken itself into costly wars for entirely spurious reason. without going into politics and our true history (which many are clueless about) a huge marketing ploy right now with our military is it’s so called “Operation Sustainability” with its “ambitious environmental goals” focused on renewable & clean fuels. The only part of their ploy that is “sustainable” includes word “renewable & lean” and fails to see the practice ITSELF of perpetual aggressive foreign policy-ironically with main mission for vast energy resources to begin with-a highly unsustainable practice. Sustainability has economic, social & environmental dimensions, and our MIC fails in all categories, overall that of preserving human life

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