Give us sustainability we can use

I was speaking with the head of marketing at Justin’s Nutbutter earlier this month. We were brainstorming the reasons why some of the largest consumer products manufacturers were not interested in getting behind the sustainable squeeze packet journey. See my piece on the Squeeze Pack Summit here, and why this is a serious issue.

We had been making phone calls and sending emails to the likes of Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, and Kraft Foods only to receive a diplomatic brush off. Our objective in contacting these firms was to get them on board with the journey, to really drive demand for a compostable film packet solution. The thinking being, with big players on the team we would be able to drive economies of scale and bring the pricing down so the film would be affordable for companies of all sizes.

How can a firm the size of these companies promote their sustainability messages to its clients, yet not engage with Justin’s Nutbutter in the sustainable packaging journey? Even more interesting, the vice president of Kraft Food’s sustainability program, Steve Yucknut, has expertise in packaging, just the skill set we were seeking to engage. So what gives? Why the lack of interest?

The cynical side of me wants to say because they are green-washing their corporate sustainability message. Maybe that is part of it, but I don’t think that is the fundamental reason. Then I received my December issue of ColoradoBiz magazine. When I read Mike Cote’s editorial, Making Sustainability Obsolete, and the feature story on Mike Gilliland, CEO of Sunflower Farmers’ Markets it hit me. There is no good, singular definition of sustainability!

The topic of sustainability is too broad and therefore means little to nothing to most people. I decided to test this theory.

When attending a breakfast meeting in Denver, I asked those sitting at my table for their thoughts on sustainability. The definitions were varied, being fed by the industries and backgrounds of the person speaking. The gentleman from a marketing firm addressed sustainability in terms of electronic media over print. The HVAC expert defined sustainability in terms of the commercial building space. The lawyer, well, his perspective was about time; driving to a client’s office compared with a telephone conversation.

This hurdle — the lack of a comprehensive definition of sustainability — causes some serious issues. The sustainability message is lost due to lack of understanding: behaviors don’t change, and adoption doesn’t occur. We can talk and write about sustainability from now till eternity, but until it is defined in terms consumers can readily apply to their own lives, we are wasting our time and resources.

Exploring this topic from the other side, businesses will focus on sustainable practices that directly impact their bottom line. So when a large discount store with buying clout demands that its vendors adopt less packaging those vendor-suppliers are going to focus on meeting that demand. The demand is less packaging, not type of packaging, or recycle-ability of the packing, just less packaging. When consumers shop at Sunflower or Sprouts, they are emphasizing with their purchasing power local foods over organic or non-gmo. There are thousands of examples just like these that muddy the waters of defining sustainability.

How would you define sustainability? Do you consider a firm’s sustainability efforts when doing business with them?
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