Defining and Measuring Sustainability: Still An Elusive Task

Yesterday morning at Sustainable Agricultural Partnerships 2010, Sylvain Cuperlier, VP of Worldwide Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability for Dole, set the tone for the day by asking What are the priorities in sustainable agriculture? Of course, the answer was simple: it depends who you are, where you are, and what you produce. Other panel sessions drew equally nebulous conclusions. While the day’s theme was Strategies and Benefits on Building Innovative Partnerships and Creating Success Stories, the hottest topic became how to measure sustainability and the trouble with metrics.

Betsy Cohen, Nestlé’s Vice President of Sustainability, explained that her company considers different goals and different certifications for different inputs and products. Brie Johnson, Straus Family Creamery’s Sustainability and Communications Manager, relayed that many sustainable practices can’t be measured; for example, we don’t yet know the effects of GMOs or antibiotics. Regardless of the obstacles, there appeared to be a consensus that choosing the right metrics is key, as is the operational context.

In addition to measurement, it seemed that the definition of sustainability was still up for debate. Many speakers used the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainability – meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – but Erin Fitzgerald, VP of Sustainability for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), talked about how she visited farmers to determine their definition. Her conversations revealed that sustainability meant anything from reducing environmental impact, to passing the deed to a farm to the next generation, to mere survival – adding that one third of U.S. farmers are currently going out of business. (When asked why DMI chose to pursue sustainability, Fitzgerald and fellow panelist Chip Jones, Senior VP Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability for Dean Foods, cited that the drivers were a push from their biggest customer, NGO requests for data, and dairy producers on the board.)

During a Q&A session, an audience member asked for panelists’ thoughts on local vs. sustainable. Alison Denis, Director of Sustainable Programs for Burgerville, a Pacific Northwest family-owned fast-food chain, offered that it depends on “where local is and what the values are,” pointing to how Oregonians and Washingtonians celebrate the local bounty so Burgerville focuses on local rather than organic. Michael Levine, who is in charge of organics and sustainability for Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy cooperative, chimed in that the term “local” needs clarification since it can be defined as economic or environmental impact.

In sum, it was difficult for these companies to define success in their sustainability efforts and they preferred to characterize sustainability as a process of seeking progress and improvement. In light of learning about these struggles, what does sustainable agriculture mean to you and what kind of information (data, stories) would you like to see used to “measure” it?


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

3 responses

Leave a Reply