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5 Questions to Ask Before Labeling a Business with the 'S-Word'


By Earl W. Shank

We tend to call everything 'sustainability,' for the lack of a better term to describe the wide cross-section of business activities we deem 'good.' That does not make each fairly virtuous act sustainable. It doesn’t. Most of the mislabeled 'good' just compares favorably to a more deplorable, drummed-up alternative; it might be more bearable or better for the environment, but advantageous comparisons do not equate to sustainability. Consumers fall so hard for the romantic concept that at times the term is little more than nebulous and trite.

More simply, few business activities deserve the ultimate acknowledgement that many readily, and without rigor, deploy. So, where does that leave the pool of consumers regularly bombarded with ostentatious claims? Here are five questions to ask before acknowledging business actions, behaviors or practices as sustainable.

1. Legal compliance

Does a regulatory body (i.e. local, state, or national government) require a low threshold of a certain positively-viewed behavior? It is not sustainable to do a little bit of good for obligatory legal purposes. It does not detract from the inherent value if legislated, but when the action meets and does not exceed the standard, the motivation to be sustainable is revealed to be weak. Partial sustainability in order to meet legal requirements should not be celebrated in the same manner that self-motivated, continuously-improving behavior deserves.

2. Social washing

Did this behavior actually take into consideration the long-term wellbeing of people, or did it merely take into consideration the employment of people in a specific geographic area? For a long time, labels that read “made in America” signified a level of unmatched manufacturing quality and meant employment for the same person that might be your neighbor. That time has come and gone, and “made in America” neither ensures quality nor fair, just, or even fully legal labor conditions. Consumers need to pry into what actually contributed to a product coming into existence and not just trust signals like “made in America” to ensure the production was done in a sustainable manner.

3. Lesser of two evils

Does this action merely correct an egregiously unsustainable behavior? Any lesser of two evils will move the needle a little bit in the right direction, but movement does not equate to actual sustainability.

This is not to say that steps should not be taken in the right direction at every opportunity, but the size of the steps and foundations the steps lay need to be equally taken into consideration when determining whether change should be celebrated. It is often the case in greenwashing that an inherently unsustainable action will be swapped for a slightly better alternative.

4. Disregard for systems change

Are we compartmentalizing the system so that an unsustainable systems-wide behavior is understood to be sustainable in a vacuum? Sustainability is about transition toward behaviors that will allow the same quality of life to be maintained into the future. We cannot expect leaps and bounds overnight. When unrealistic expectations arise, sometimes the least sustainable behaviors are exhibited.

For example, someone downstream in the supply chain could immediately become more sustainable by eliminating a relationship with a supplier deemed to be causing unnecessary harm. Immediately, such a business could claim victory for the green movement, ignoring the social implications of lost jobs and impact on the other business. Consumers are, unfortunately, attracted to such rash actions and find the tendency to show an undeserved attentiveness to the sustainability movement.

5. Wealth sharing

Does the action involve the poor only because they have some desirable trait? When business involves low-income communities or developing nations, it tends to be marketed as a victory for social inequity. However, when the poor are only included in business activities because of cheap labor, or to appropriate their culture, it does little for the long-term sustainability of that group of people.

Cheap labor that just so happens to involve one group of low-income people is quickly traded to the next group who can continue to offer low prices or who can offer lower prices. If business is truly interested in working to improve the wellbeing of a group of people, then it should be looking to do so in a way that wages can be increased over time to meet and exceed basic needs. The social component of sustainability should go beyond approaching inequality in social standards and actually engage the issue.

Sustainability is a systems-wide approach to ensuring the quality of life for future generations. It is not the picking and choosing of low-hanging fruit. There is a lot of good going on in the world, and increasingly the good has corporate roots. We need to challenge corporations to continue to do right by consumers and to build sustainability as part of their actual business operations and not just their marketing.

Image credit: "Sustainability Strengths Word Cloud" by UNM Office of Sustainability 

Earl W. Shank is the Sustainability Coordinator at the University of New Mexico’s Office of Sustainability. His work entails developing strategy to engage university stakeholders about how to incorporate sustainable solutions.

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