Reducing Waste Doesn’t Always Equate to Sustainability: Start Calculating the Impact of Tradeoffs in Sustainability Strategies

The SSC Team March 29, 2016 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

For years, organizations have been buying into the “waste less to be green” strategy. Sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – i.e. save some stuff for future generations.

So, it is natural to assume that by using fewer resources today, we are saving them up for our children’s children’s children. Sometimes this pans out, sometimes not.

Many industries would like the definition of sustainability to end here, because it means they can focus entirely on innovating production around using fewer resources, yet still producing profitable goods and services.

Win for the planet. Win for the pocketbook.

However, not all industries can use even come close to really being sustainable, just by virtue of existing at all (ahem, coal). We all know about these industries, and scientists and engineers everywhere are working to reduce our dependence on them.

But what about other industries? Does using less waste always correlate to an environmental “win?”

Research by Jason Jay, a senior lecturer at MIT, and his colleagues are suggesting that it is time to place some serious focus on the temporal tradeoffs in sustainability.

Let’s just say you have a product that is two pounds of plastic, but you innovate and reduce that amount to one pound – and customers love it because they love green products, so you sell twice as many. Sustainable? That is the question.

Consumers really wrestled with this issue back when we were having the paper-or-plastic debate. It seems we may have resolved that one with reusable bags (unless you keep losing them and buying new ones every time you shop).

Now the issue is popping up again and again with retailers like IKEA questioning its own business model and product longevity, making headlines with a recent joke about “peak curtains.”  Allegations that technology companies like Apple are hooking users with upgrades and software that results in a cycle of planned obsolescence and waste and generating backlash. And consumers are coming out against the $5 throwaway t-shirt, cheap plastic trinkets, and a culture too willing to plow through resources to stay on trend.

Startups like Buy Me Once are pushing back on consumer culture, attempting to shift purchasing habits from disposable to durable, and investment in products that last. Begging the question, Why don’t they make ‘em like they used to?”

The tide may be shifting among consumers, and it may not be long until manufacturers are asked to deal with more critical, nuanced questions about consumption. It’s longer going to be about buying recyclable plastic cups for a dinner party, but not buying special cups to start with, shifting the emphasis from “recycle” to “reduce and reuse.” If you make disposable plastic cups, this could be a worrying trend, but if you are the planet, this could be the promise of progress.

Are you seeing changes in demand from customers or clients pushing for longer life-span built into product design? Do you feel that consumers will embrace the “pay more” for products with a longer useful life? Let us know in the comments.



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