THE SUSTAINABILITY MINEFIELD
5 examples to demonstrate how wholly inappropriate that word is and some help demystifying the intricacies of its vocabulary.
I don’t have a qualification in Sustainability; I don’t need one to be able to tell you that it is complicated, confusing, inconsistent and riddled with intimidating terminology. The average human will not have spent years studying this topic. Still, they will be expected to make decisions about things based on an assumed understanding of the word sustainable. I say assumed because without supporting information or an explanation of what sustainable means in that particular forum, it can be easily manipulated and is so often misleading.
Think about it; sustainable simply means something that can be sustained. That’s it. Doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, just means it can continue, and yet this has become the word of choice for anything that falls into the domain of environmentally friendly.
Half the time I am not even sure the brands that are slapping it all over their products have agreed on or defined what their particular criteria is; they are probably just as confused as the rest of us.
When we think of something sustainable, I am pretty sure most of us are thinking planet positive. I think about the origin and outcome. Where did it come from, how, where will it end up and what has happened/will happen as a result of the cycle?
Let’s use that as a rough marker, a starting point. With that in mind, I want to share with you some of the most common misrepresentations so you can be better prepared to ask the right questions, to identify what they mean, and to decide if it aligns with what you are striving for personally.
Sustainability and it’s myriad of misrepresentations.
Let’s call the front for this company Pigman to protect his identity loosely. He visits our office to pitch the corporate sustainability initiative he is working on; he presents with such spirit I am horrified to look around and see my colleagues nodding in agreement. We were interested in what he had to say as we were looking for companies that are fully transparent so we can list them confidently knowing they are using good practice.
While he was rambling total nonsense at us, I did a quick google search and immediately unearthed multiple articles about one of their tanneries; so damaging that toxicity levels in the area are still elevated ten years after its closure. So harmful that the decision was made to excavate buried materials in an attempt to reduce the poisons still present in the soil, so noxious that the state had sued them to force them into cleaning the heavily contaminated drinking water. I had pretty much zoned out by this point, but he gets my attention again by telling us about the things he is the proudest of. One is a pretty diabolical ‘sustainability’ video; the other is about his Pigs. That’s right, his Pigs; he takes an enormous amount of pleasure announcing that his new facility is now:
Capable of skinning 400 pigs an hour. 400, it’s incredible!
I shuffle uncomfortably, me, the vegan sat at the end of the table. I mean it’s not really what I was hoping for, now all I can think of is this horrific scenario, I can see those pigs faces. I swallow my fury and politely retort with:
I’m not sure the pigs would agree with you.
You see what I think he means efficient — they have become more efficient. Efficiency can be a good thing for the environment, absolutely, but here in this example, is it humane? Is it ethical? What are the ramifications of this exactly? Four hundred pigs sounds like a lot of waste; waste is toxic — do you see where I am going with this? To me, that seems barbaric, unethical and potentially highly polluting, none of these are things that I believe to be planet positive. You see how the word sustainable alone is empty; it doesn’t give you all the information you need to get to the full picture?
Nike launches their open-source circularity workbook; a huge step forward, the beginning of us joining together to help one another collaborate, to guide; to become better.
At Nike, we believe in the unlimited potential of athletes. We have an obligation to consider the complete design solution, inclusive of how we source it, make it, use it, return it, and, ultimately, how we reimagine it. Inspired by Global Fashion Agenda, we have created Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design.
As a standalone document yes it’s ok; if you can see past the extremely wordy and rather pretentious vocabulary, I would go so far as to say it’s pretty good. If you are an individual or a business who wants to learn more about this stuff, this is an interesting resource, a great starting point, and some of the information may even be helpful.
But how can we possibly take this seriously? How can anyone be expected to consider this to be even remotely sincere?
It’s almost comical that this comes from the brand that has multiple drops every single week; there is even a special calendar and app to make sure you can keep up with the new arrivals. Are they essential items? Of course not, no one depends on them for survival. If they were to cut the number of new releases by half, the reduction in manufacturing, labour, logistics and everything associated with it would be so dramatic you could throw the workbook out of the window for all the difference that would make. So here we are; Nike has created an entire pack explaining in great detail what we all need to do, they understand the issues are critical and how to address them, but are they following it?
You tell me.
The good thing about some of our material suppliers is that they are beginning to understand. They are gradually learning about the changes that they need to make, and it’s really exciting when they come to see us with something legitimately low impact or even positive impact. The problem is often it’s only half right. What do I mean by that? Well, let me share with you another disastrous meeting. This particular supplier was coming to discuss their new RPET (Recycled Polyester). They have begun to recycle plastic bottles to spin into yarn, which can then be made into all sorts of other things. Great — oh, it was all going so well until this bombshell:
Guess what’s even better about our RPET? We don’t have to get it out of the ocean, we just buy the bottles new from our local supplier before they’re branded or have anything put into them, that way they’re much cleaner and easier to work with.
I was speechless. I mean it’s resourceful but also quite clear that they didn’t understand why they were doing it in the first place. You probably think, well that’s not so bad at least they’re recycling it right? Wrong. You see it’s still relatively unusual for the neck or base of the bottle to be recycled. If you are using the mechanical recycling method, really you just want the soft bit in the middle. If you were to use a chemical process, then yes the bottle can be recycled in its entirety, but as it stands mechanical is still by far the most popular method. So that’s a lot of additional unnecessary new waste as opposed to it being transformative to existing waste.
Sadly this is not as outrageous as you might think, I also found out to my horror that a number of our packaging suppliers were buying brand new Kraft cards, then mushing it all up to make 100% recycled boxes. They had no idea this was a bad thing because they didn’t know why they were doing it in the first place. There lies the issue; they only half understand why they are doing these things, so sadly they get the other half very wrong. It’s down to us to question everything, to be patient, and to help them to recognise why we are doing all of this.
4. Recycling is only partially beneficial
This leads me neatly onto recycling, especially plastic recycling. Sadly, it’s simply not the answer; there are so many reasons why it is flawed, and even with an enormous amount of investment the volume capabilities wouldn’t even scrape the surface of what we need to recycle. This is not just because misguided people are recycling brand new things in place of existing trash. It’s because there are several issues with the process of recycling itself.
Firstly, contrary to popular belief, only a relatively small amount of anything is/can be recycled. Then you are relying on people to sort, clean and put their rubbish into the correct bins, a lot of things are difficult to recycle, can’t be recycled or require specialist facilities, which are extremely costly.
In addition to this, just because something has been recycled doesn’t make it good. In my job, when we look at materials, we always try to use RPET (recycled polyester) as opposed to PET (virgin polyester). Still, PET recycled or not is a type of plastic, plastic does not degrade, so the RPET mesh in your sneakers will still sit in the landfill for hundreds of years. It doesn’t fix the problem; it’s only a partial solution.
I am going to use Everlane as an example here for two reasons.
The first reason is that in the past, they have been a brand who have been very guilty of promoting their outstanding business practices with no evidence to support this. They built themselves an exceptional reputation and an extremely profitable business, saying things like:
Our Promise — Radical Transparency
Yet when you went onto the Everlane website, it didn’t have any of the names of the factories, neither did it have any of the details of their material certifications. Both of these things are vitally important in any kind of business that talks about transparency — and as their promise is radical transparency, I would say it’s pretty fundamental.
The second reason I use them as an example is that they were called out on these very issues by a YouTuber: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x47di-8jt8I
They were called out on it, and they dealt with it head-on, so this is a brilliant example of how putting pressure on companies to do things right can work. If you go to the website now, all of their factories have their names listed, and they also have a page of their material certifications. If you want to check on the legitimacy of what a business is doing and how it impacts the environment, this is precisely the type of information you are looking for.
So I want to conclude by saying that it is a minefield.
I can’t put it any better than Vanessa Friedman, (Fashion Director and Critic for the New York Times) when she made her speech at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, right back in 2014 she said:
Sustainable fashion is an oxymoron; it’s jumbo shrimp, it’s terrible beauty, down escalator, resident alien…
This is the best statement I have heard to describe this issue, and I agree wholeheartedly; the problem is that it was six years ago. I think in terms of the definition, it may have gotten worse, more complicated, and more confusing.
So what else can you do?
Well, how about you avoid that word; I challenged my business to use the word ‘Responsible’; instead, I wanted to bypass the hollow, vague sentiment of ‘Sustainable’ altogether, use something pro-active, empowering. Not only have they accepted this as a much more meaningful descriptor of what we are working towards, they have embraced it, and we are on our way to doing things better, being authentic and taking responsibility for our actions. We also use words like ‘Low Impact’ to describe our journey as it’s clear enough that it requires no further explanation.
Imagine what would happen if everyone could just subscribe to those two basic qualities?
Be more responsible and use clear terminology that is accessible instead of intimidating.
It’s not an elitist club; it’s a critical situation, and we all have our role to play in making changes for the better.
Instead of following blindly, we can take responsibility for our actions, and we can empower each other to be successful by using language that everyone understands.