For the past few years, global consultancies GlobeScan and SustainAbility have surveyed 900 sustainability professionals to evaluate which companies have best integrated sustainability into their corporate strategy.
Not surprising, Unilever held the top spot again for the sixth straight year for its leading-edge sustainability performance and strategy. Joining Unilever on the list were a number of high profile consumer brands, like Patagonia, IKEA, Tesla, Coca-Cola, and Nike, among others.
These companies, and others including Target, Whole Foods, and GE, are making loads of money through their sales of legitimately sustainable products and/or practices.
But let’s not put them on a pedestal just yet. Just because a company is strategic, and just because a billion-dollar portion of their income comes from sustainably produced products, does not mean they are even close to being truly sustainable – with sustainability defined as mitigating the social and environmental effects of their business operations throughout the entire product life cycle, from corporate management, to production, waste, distribution, operations, and disposal.
There are a number of the problems in confusing sustainable products with sustainable companies.
First, there are the temporal tradeoffs in sustainability.
Second, there is the idea that segmenting a business from its products, and declaring that business sustainable is somehow possible. Holding up organizations against a better framework of measure is needed, and providing more transparency on sustainability metrics should be mandated to help educate consumers, not just market to them.
Similar to the recent changes in the nutritional labeling practices to educate consumers on their actual sugar consumption, the emergence of a better way than a “survey of how sustainability consultants feel” or even jargon-filled GRI reports buried on a corporate website, needs to become the norm.
Certifying organizations need to talk about what percentage of a business must be sustainable for the entire organization to be considered sustainable. Can companies make chemicals for agriculture that help reduce water, and chemicals for warfare and still be considered sustainable? Can a manufacturer make one line of sustainable home goods, yet deliver products with a 3-year lifespan and no ability to be recycled and still be sustainable? Can a retail outlet sell reusable water bottles and Styrofoam cups in the same store and still be considered a model for consumer sustainability?
In the end, we know as sustainability consultants and professionals that, even though Unilever is the model for integration of sustainable practices in their business, and even though we love what Patagonia and IKEA and others are doing to make meaningful changes for environmental and social good, we are a long way from true “sustainability.”
Many of these consumer brands continue to capitalize on the consumer desire for “green” products, and are still pushing the cyclical, disposable, must-have-the-latest-trend consumerist behaviors that result in waste.
Unless an organization is net zero or net negative, then it really cannot be considered “sustainable.” And as consultants, professionals, marketers, and executives, if we continue to pat each other on the back too loudly for our sustainable milestones, or sustainable strategies, or sustainable product lines, we may confuse consumers into believing our work is nearly finished.