Is sustainability, sustainable?

February 16, 2015

Is Sustainability, Sustainable?

By Eric Hartman, Product Ventures Vice President Technologies & Commercialization
 

Sustainability has been the buzzword for consumer products companies for the better part of a decade now. It seems like everyone jumped on the bandwagon when they learned that consumers were reacting positively to companies that were thinking about the environment, even if they had to, gasp, pay a little more for the sustainable company's products.

Now that the hoopla has come and gone I think it's important to remember why sustainability became a trend in the first place.

Gone are the days when we can continue to consume finite material resources without regard to where they come from or what will be done with them when they are no longer useful to us. And, in truth those days never really existed anyway. It was just the shortsightedness of human nature that made us think it was something that we did not have to worry about. However, at some point in the not too distant past, companies began to realize that their current business practices could not continue long term. You could argue that Al Gore with his "An Inconvenient Truth", while not directly targeted at sustainability, raised awareness of the environmental impact that humans were having on the planet to such a level that companies had to begin to demonstrate that they were going to be good environmental stewards or face public backlash. The interesting thing though is that as companies set out on the sustainability mission they found that there were business benefits to embracing sustainability practices. Under the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra companies discovered that there was money on the table to be gained when they started to critically review their business practices and gain a better understanding of why they used the amount or types of materials that they did. It also made a big difference when companies started to further investigate where the materials that they used came from and what happened to them at the end of their life.

Having been a practicing Packaging Engineer for longer than I care to own up to, I have always been tasked with finding cost savings opportunities with the packaging that the company I happened to be working for at the time was developing or already using. It's refreshing to me now to see that the larger cost optimization initiatives that companies previously undertook which were, in theory, targeted at looking at a business in it's entirety and which ultimately came down to "how do we reduce the cost of the product or the package" are now being revisited under the guise of sustainability, and for the first time, it seems that system wide changes are being implemented to improve the environmental impact and help to reduce overall costs.

But I just have to wonder, is this sustainability movement really sustainable? What's going to happen after companies go through a few rounds of self evaluation, after they have plucked all of the low hanging sustainability fruit, after management changes, as consumer trends evolve? Will companies continue to critically evaluate their business practices with a "sustainable" eye? Will they continue on the sustainable path not because there are cost savings opportunities on the table or because consumer trends are setting that direction but because it is the "right" thing to do for people and for the planet?

Call me cynical but based on the past 30 years in the industry and bring firmly entrenched in a capitalist society, I have my doubts. Unless there is an economic motivation for companies to continue to embrace sustainability I fear that it too will go the way of the dinosaur, eradicated by something beyond control that happens without warning. I can only hope that I am wrong and that in time we will all come to realize that the impact that we have on the planet is permanent and it's within our control to determine if it will be positive or negative.
 

Eric Hartman is the Vice President Technologies & Commercialization for Product Ventures. 
Contact Eric at 203.319.1119 or ehartman@productventures.com.