ES&T: Sustainability--The Art of the Possible

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Politics used to be known as “the art of the possible”. But nothing seems possible in government anymore. Environmental legislation, regulations, and policy are all paralyzed by a venomous, polarized electorate who are “mad as hell” but clueless about what they really need.

Sustainability should lay claim to the phrase, “the art of the possible”, because it is quietly making progress in difficult
times through a curious alignment of public interest groups, industry leaders, supply chain specialists, and third party
certifiers. The environmental movement has been hijacked by manufacturers, NGOs, and individuals using breakthroughs in information technology and social networking. Surprisingly, we are beginning to make progress on corporate sustainability with little leadership from government.

A new Sustainapalooza wind is blowing... Consider the following:

Mars Inc. has a corporate goal for a Zero-Carbon Footprint. Can you imagine? No use of fossil carbon whatsoever in making M&Ms, Mars bars, Uncle Ben’s converted rice, dog food, or any other of their myriad products. They don’t know how they’re going to do it. But they’re committed to continuous improvement toward the goal, and that’s what sustainability really is.

Unilever, Heinz, and Tesco have pledged to work toward 100% of their supply chain being third-party certified. Similarly, Dole Inc. wants you to know where every one of their organic bananas and pineapples are grown. And if you don’t believe it, you can go to their Web site and put in the 3-digit DPC number on the sticker of the product and find out for yourself. I did for Dole banana DPC 414 and I discovered the banana was grown in Sullana, Piura, Peru on the MUNDACA SAC. The banana is certified organic by USDA (NOP Organic) and by the EU (ECC 834/2007 Organic). That’s a sizable accomplishment for the sustainability supply chain.

Labeling and product certification is sweeping the planet. We now have the Nordic Swan, The German Blue Angel, the
European flower Ecolabel, and the EPA Energy Star. There are 348 ecolabels in 212 countries, covering 40 industry sectors.
You can certify your underwear if you want (before they are worn). That’s right. String ( provides an online traceability service by Historic Futures, which enables companies to assure product integrity from raw fiber to finished garment. A Tesco cotton T-shirt may have seven cotton suppliers from four different countries all interwoven into a single product. Not to worry. String will track them all, including the suppliers who supply the suppliers.

Social networking is having a huge influence on consumer advocacy. Mothers throw a scare into every consumer products company in the world. When moms start a Facebook page with consumer complaints against a product, CEOs sweat through their baby-blue dress shirts in the executive suite.

Life cycle assessments (LCA) are a big part of the story, providing the metrics for sustainability. Today we are deluged with LCA policy analyses and research articles at ES&T with good reason. Everyone wants to know the most environmentally
friendly way of doing things. LCA is the calculus of the new sustainability.

Socially responsible investing (SRI) is playing an important role also. Wikipedia thinks it’s more than 11% of all investing
in the U.S.- $2.7 trillion currently. We wouldn’t need environmental regulations if people really believed that the most profitable companies are the most sustainable ones. Investors would self-regulate the companies toward sustainability and profitability simultaneously. The Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes screens most companies for sustainability and ranks them. It’s not yet clear if the most sustainable companies perform best. But what if they do?

Many companies are building new facilities in developing countries that will use only renewable energy sources, essentially leapfrogging technology in the West. Corporate goals have gone global. Wal-Mart has pledged to use 100% renewable energy by 2030. They partner with an amazing assortment of players: EDF, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Clear Carbon, Carbon Disclosure Project, and the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas. My students at the University of Iowa are working with John Deere to help factories in China use no more water than that which falls on their footprint (zero-discharge, too).

Government is like the Grinch who couldn’t stop Christmas from coming: “It came just the same.” (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 1966. Television adaptation of book of same title by Dr. Seuss; text at How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas!_(TV_special)). Somehow, the sustainability movement is muddling through via collaboration, pressure from NGOs, supply chain tracking, LCA analyses, ecolabeling, and third-party certification.

I’m not naive (only from Iowa). I know the vast majority of us make quick purchasing decisions within seconds of picking up a product at the store. We are not going to browse the Internet to determine the leaders in consumer products before we buy our toilet paper. Nonetheless, the world is changing and people are getting more interested in the origin and impact of everything. ES&T will continue to cover this area, from food miles to carbon offsets, because it’s proving to be the art of the possible.

Jerald L. Schnoor