13 October 2021

Branded as ‘Sustainable’ — What’s in a word?

Should product companies self-proclaim as ‘sustainable’?

Spoiler alert — no, they shouldn’t.
But there are other more intelligent and accurate ways to communicate on environmental action. Read on to find out why ‘sustainable’ is scientifically incorrect and how you can position your brand/products with more accuracy and in line with the legally binding ‘Green Claims Code’.

See this full post on Earthrise’s Instagram profile.

What does being ‘sustainable’ mean for businesses?

Specifically in the context of environmental science, being ‘sustainable’ means that your business operates to meet its needs (socially and financially)…

  • Without contributing further to global warming
  • Without contributing to the inevitable consequences of further warming
  • Without unbalancing and over-depleting the world’s natural resources
  • Without degrading or destroying the earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems
  • Without causing harm or disruption to anyone or anything, now, or ever

In other words… Being “sustainable” means operating to meet your current business needs without compromising the ability of all life forms (human, flora and fauna) to meet their own survial needs for the indefinite future.
Emphasis on the deep time scale — hundreds and thousands of years.
Being sustainable is not about ‘environmental credentials’ within a financial year, or even the entire longevity of a company. It’s about what we leave behind when we are gone. How our actions today contribute to the collective outcomes for the lives of tomorrow.

Vital signs

Unless you’ve been on a rocket in space for the past year — you’ll know that the earth’s temperature correlates with the volume of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere. In this graph from NASA, we’re looking specifically at carbon dioxide levels.

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements,
provides evidence that atmospheric CO₂ has increased since the Industrial Revolution.

The graph above shows an exponential spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide at the exact time of the industrial revolution — the time we as humans began to scale up industry, manufacturing, and worldwide transport — powered by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (a non-renewal energy on human lifespan timescales).
Directly correlating with atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other GHGs), the earth’s surface continues to significantly warm, with recent global temperatures being the hottest in the past 2,000+ years.

While sustainability is an important concept, simply sustaining our current system will only drive it to collapse. — Earthrise

More GHGs = Warmer Temperatures = Environmental Disasters

So we know that any kind of activity that emits greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide emissions that come primarily from energy production, including burning coal, oil, or natural gas), results in the warming of the earth which leads to all kinds of environmental disasters and long-term, widespread damage and disruption — physically and economically.

With the unequivocal evidence, it’s globally agreed and accepted by climate scientists, and finally governments, that for as long as business activities emit greenhouse gases (e.g. as a result of dependence on fossil fuels) we are compromising the definition of operating ‘sustainably’.

But what if we plant trees and offset our emissions?

Because it’s impossible to transition to a decarbonised economy overnight, and we still rely on fossil fuels for global trade, ‘offsetting’ should be part of any environmental action plan.

BUT, ‘offsetting’ to claim your operations are ‘sustainable’ is inaccurate, misinformed, and misleading.

As Climate Scientist, Professor Johan Rockström explained on The Sustainability Dialogues podcast (22:12 timestamp)…
Carbon emissions from a flight can remain in the atmosphere for 1000 years. So any ‘offsetting’ for your flight, for example, would need the same longevity.
So even if you commissioned the planting of one million trees today to ‘offset’ your operational carbon emissions — in 1000 years time, or much sooner, there is a good chance some of the stored carbon would be released back into the atmosphere.

Read: Desperate PR or Genuine Environmental Action?

The Greenhouse Effect means that not all of our emissions can escape back into space — they are absorbed by GHGs, then radiated in all directions, warming the earth. The earth’s ecosystems have a finite and ever-depleting capacity for carbon storage (forests for example). The true way to tackle this global crisis is by fixing it at the source — reducing and eventually eliminating our dependence on non-renewable energy as well as protecting/restoring the ecosystems which manage the carbon cycle.
Don’t omit— this is only addressing one environmental issue (global warming) — being ‘sustainable’ also applies to other issues like waste, leaching, and air pollution. If products end up in landfill and the economy is not circular, that’s not ‘sustainable’ either.

Lessons from the Leaders

It’s no coincidence that arguably the most environmentally responsible brand out there (Patagonia) calls out misuse of the words above (including ‘sustainable’). Their tone and approach is very clear that they are part of the problem but doing what they can to be more responsible.

“Everything we make has an impact on the planet.” — Patagonia.

“The climate crisis is no longer a forecast — for millions, it’s become a frequent, difficult, even devastating reality, and every part of Patagonia’s business is implicated. We are enmeshed in carbon emissions: making polyester thread from oil, weaving fabric on machines run on fossil fuels, dyeing fabrics with chemical dyes and waterproofing jackets, sewing shirts in factories, transporting pants from one country to another or from one city to another, shipping clothes in plastic mailbags to the people who order them, driving to work.”

Patagonia is far from perfect but they admit that and understand the science and how to communicate the problems and potential solutions with thoughtfulness and transparency.

‘Sustainable’ is only a word — why does it matter?

“It’s only a word”. “People can relate to it”. “People understand it”. “Everyone’s using it”. “We’re aiming towards it”.“What’s wrong with it”?

It matters for five main reasons:

  1. It’s inaccurate (see point 1 of the ‘Green Claims Code’ below)
  2. It’s misleading (see point 2 below)
  3. You can’t assess the product’s end of life impact (see point 5 below)
  4. We’ll be dead by the time sustainability is measured (see point 6 below)
  5. It’s illegal(The CMA has warned businesses they have until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims comply with the law).

In summary, the science (and Patagonia’s leadership) informs us that it would be ethically wrong to label a brand or business as ‘sustainable’ for as long as we depend on and emit carbon or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Ethical brands know that and find ways to communicate their efforts without greenwashing. In other words — tell it like it is (see ‘We Are Not a Sustainable Company’ by Noah in ‘Related Reading’).

Green Claims Code — legally binding framework

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has developed the Green Claims Code which sets out six key points to check your environmental claims are genuinely ‘green’.

Green claims MUST:
1. Be truthful and accurate: Businesses must live up to the claims they make about their products, services, brands and activities
2. Be clear and unambiguous: The meaning that a consumer is likely to take from a product’s messaging and the credentials of that product should match
3. Not omit or hide important information: Claims must not prevent someone from making an informed choice because of the information they leave out
4. Only make fair and meaningful comparisons: Any products compared should meet the same needs or be intended for the same purpose
5. Consider the full life cycle of the product: When making claims, businesses must consider the total impact of a product or service. Claims can be misleading where they don’t reflect the overall impact or where they focus on one aspect of it but not another
6. Be substantiated: Businesses should be able to back up their claims with robust, credible and up to date evidence

Alternative ways to communicate on environmental actions

If in Patagonia’s words ‘everything we make is harmful to the planet’ — the only thing we can do is make things less harmful and less impactful on the earth’s natural resources by being more responsible.
Rather than asking ‘how sustainable is a product’ — a more logical question is ‘how can we minimise the inevitable environmental impact of globally-traded products’. Even an avocado is not ‘sustainable’ when they are mass-produced and flown from South America to Europe.
It goes without saying, it’s not just about the product manufacturing — it’s about the entire supply chain, business operations, staff movements, and post-purchase outcome — from ‘cradle to grave’ (and beyond).
The wording needs careful consideration and a representation of the truth based on science and what is and isn’t possible for your specific business.
Striving to be a ‘more sustainable’ company is a great, much-needed endeavour. But in light of the science above, the language needs to change.

Thought starters

  • Innovating to reduce environmental impact…
  • Driven in pursuit of less harmful solutions…
  • Committed to environmentally responsible practises…
  • Striving for environmental solutions in an imperfect world…
  • Led by environmental science, driven by responsible practice…

‘Environmentally responsible’ is more intelligent and accurate than ‘sustainable’ because it allows the acknowledgement of imperfections and transparency on the fact that only protection and restoration of the earth’s natural resources is sustainable, not the infinite depletion of non-renewable resources.
None of us are perfect, but that doesn’t mean the language we use can’t be.
So what’s in a word? Literally everything.

Author: Gillon Hunter

More useful resources from Montagne Verte: