Why Companies Are Failing at Being Truly Sustainable

And what they can do about it

few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who told me he was helping a corporate run a plastics recycling project. The company is a large manufacturer of plastic, and they wanted to find a way to recycle as much of it as possible when it approached the end of the supply chain — when plastic is used and thrown away.

One question crossed my mind, “Did this company truly care about sustainability, or were they running this project to hit a “sustainability quota”? Sadly, this is a question that I often think about when I hear about companies running such projects.

Note: When I talk about sustainability, I mean the creation of a sustainable society through radical change, not a society where we sustain current systems by patching up problems as we go.

After a little more digging, it became obvious that they didn’t really understand the problem they were trying to solve, and more dangerously, they were armed with a truckload of assumptions. The part that got me though, was that they were trying to outsource the project to an external party with zero experience in sustainability innovation, circular design or recycling.

Unfortunately, sustainability for a lot of businesses today has become a marketing tool that gives us an illusion of change and social impact. Take for example, Starbucks’ latest campaign against plastic straws.

Source: Starbucks

In 2018, Starbucks rolled out a campaign banning plastic straws in North American stores in the hopes of banning all straws by 2020 across its 28,000 stores worldwide.

What the coffee giant failed to acknowledge (or ignored), was that by eliminating its plastic straws and manufacturing the new straw-less lids, they were actually increasing their plastic production, meaning customers were adding between 0.32 and 0.88 grams to their plastic consumption per drink, compared to the straw and lid combination.

“Even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.” — Bloomberg

It was no surprise that after this move, Starbucks was praised for being “environmentally conscious”, and on the morning following the announcement, their stock rose 1.9 per cent.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that regardless of intent, bringing more awareness to the harmful nature of single-use plastics is better than none at all. But the danger lies in the fact that such marketing schemes promote eco-fads and trendy activism, such as the no-straw movement. And as we can see from Starbucks, this can actually cause more harm than good.

What’s more worrying is that action and accountability from businesses is kept low, especially when they are allowed to benefit from one faction of the (plastic) problem— the equivalent of putting a band-aid on an accident victim. It promotes the mentality in business that once the “sustainability quota” or the “marketing quota” is hit, the job here is done.

In reality, accountability levels, especially for businesses, should now be higher than ever.

Understand the problem you are trying to solve

To me, it is actually quite shocking that any business would try and solve “sustainability issues” without really knowing what that means, or what problems they are trying to solve.

Take for example the plastics company I mentioned previously, they wanted to recycle plastic at the end of the supply chain, yet they missed an important detail — their plastic products were made up of different polymers, which means it is extremely difficult for them to separate and recycle this material.

It would have made more sense if the money spent on commissioning this project went into researching opportunities for sustainable transformation, or ways to innovate on the actual material itself, i.e. using technology to develop single polymer materials that are easily recyclable.

A holistic approach is a necessity when finding ways to becoming a truly sustainable business. Understand what impact your business has on the world. Break it down. Understand all of its nuances and how it operates before coming up with solutions. Even solutions need to be challenged. Find the opportunities that already exist within your business.

Build sustainability into your business model

Whether this becomes a part of your company mission, or a part of your supply chain, or both, building sustainability into your core business is a step towards becoming a truly sustainable one.

Take for example Notra’s sunglasses. When the founders were building their supply chain, the only suppliers they could find were producing industry-standard plastics. They decided to keep looking for a supplier that fit with their requirements for an ethical production process. Eventually they landed on an Italian facility that produced plastic-like, plant-based materials.

Though it may be impossible to totally transform your whole supply chain, particularly if you’re already a well-established corporate structure, there are always opportunities for improvement and change that could be more impactful than commissioning projects that merely glaze over problems.

A truly sustainable business model or supply chain is a step change, where you must think about disrupting the current business structure in order to make major changes to address more of the market. Your company and your suppliers need to think more like strategists to create new industry structures. — William Crane, founder and CEO of IndustryStar Solutions

And not only can building sustainability into your business create important social change, it can make it more profitable — a report by CDP has proven that corporations that are actively planning for climate change receive 18% higher of a return on investments (ROI) than those that aren’t.

When it comes to creating businesses that are truly sustainable, we can no longer settle for convenient problems or marketing gimmicks. If a company wants to become sustainable, they should take the time and resources to make it so. Sustainability demands long-term, transformative change. If a business can’t deliver on this, they might as well not bother at all.

Explorer, starter, change agent. Polymath — you’ll tell by my writing. Founder at www.alpacacoffee.co.uk — single origin coffee in plastic free packaging.

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