Efficiency Does Not Equal Sustainability
Further clouding the picture is how to ethically address the needs of the developing world. More than half the world’s population lives on less than a few dollars a day. Big business views the developing world as an emerging market: untapped, uncapped, and with unlimited potential. True, developing markets present a strong opportunity for business growth. However, if future development is pursued exclusively in the image and shadow of American capitalism, the world simply will not have enough food, water, and other life-essential natural resources to go around.
For many business strategists, sustainable growth equates to greater productivity shrouded in efficiency. They understand that natural resources have limitations, at least from an economic point of view. The more efficient they are at extracting, converting, and using resources to produce consumer products, the more money they can retain as profit. And we all know that profit is redistributed equitably. So everyone wins. Right? Not exactly.
Efficiency provides a wonderful veil for sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, using precious natural resources more efficiently is essential, no matter how you want to look at this issue. But, my observation and point here is that seldom do we question the use of the resource outright, at face value. Rather, we look for solutions in efficiency, stewardship, and wise use versus challenging our intellect to innovate something completely novel.
Consider the pursuit of restraint and conservation versus efficiency and productivity in economic terms. Wall Street wants financial returns. Efficiency gets you there quickly. Sustainability gets you there as well, but requires a long-view on how, when, and where value is created. Sustainability requires a new way of thinking, greater diversity and engagement of all stakeholders, and integrated approaches for allocating resources to solve complex and interrelated societal needs.
Energy is essential for economic growth and prosperity. But we shouldn’t be confined to think about economic growth in terms of optimizing energy use exclusively through greater efficiency. For electricity, the kilowatt-hour never consumed (i.e., conservation) provides the most immediate returns for reducing costs and carbon.
We should also be more open to the idea that perhaps the resource is not needed in the first place. We need energy, but does it need to come from the traditional utility grid? Can it be generated and delivered from an on-site generator, or integrated with a flywheel or fuel cell to provide additional value such as enhanced reliability and back-up support? Do we really need as much soy, corn-syrup, palm-oil, or milk-derived ingredients in processed foods as there are? Are there other substitutes, or can we omit certain ingredients all-together while significantly reducing upstream impacts on the environment and improving our dietary health?
Great progress has been made by businesses reducing carbon through more efficient use of energy and other resources. Corporate concern and attention on carbon is necessary, particularly as the impacts of climate change pose significant risk to operational resiliency. But as global dialog and directional strategies have focused on carbon, other material aspects of business sustainability (many of which indirectly impact total global carbon emissions) have not been addressed. Corporations and governments have selected carbon as the almighty “god particle” of sustainability performance. Solve the carbon thing – and all will be alright.
Of course I’m oversimplifying and undervaluing the tremendous progress global brands such as Unilever, IKEA, Nike, Patagonia, Nestle, Interface and others have made to integrate sustainability throughout their operations. These well-recognized “ sustainable brands ” have spliced sustainability into the DNA of their business strategy, shaping the collective consciousness (and daily culture) of their consumers and employees.
But for all of those top tier companies that are working toward integrated solutions, transparency, and reporting – there are hundreds and thousands more businesses in the supply chain that still don’t get it. If there is a god particle to manage in sustainability – it’s not carbon, a material, a waste or effluent. It’s our collective consciousness and intelligence that can, when creatively harnessed, alleviate bad stuff and bad things from being emitted or happening in the first place. We have that potential within us – we just haven’t been able to tap it.
Sustainability is very much an issue about sovereignty and integrity. We are the stewards of our own fate. Global businesses and governments are focusing their efforts to optimize their sustainability performance toward one, albeit critical variable, carbon. But we know that sustainability landscape has a broader context than just carbon. To truly make progress, sustainability requires a more holistic view of the complex variables impacting the confluence of living-social-technological-and-economic systems including water, rare earth minerals, hazardous materials management, and so on. While carbon represents the smoking gun of humanity’s negligence on protecting nature, our arsenal of additional atrocities remains stocked, and we’ve yet to fully stand down.