How Do You Define Sustainability?

"How do you define the term "sustainability"? This is the question I've asked a dozen or so presenters at conferences over the past several years. In corporate social responsibility (CSR) circles, "sustainability" has become a primary topic of discussion — from sustainable financial investment to sustainability in the environment, sustainability in the apparel industry, and more. Sustainability even seems to have overtaken CSR as the Madison Avenue buzzword du jour as company after company seeks to market how sustainable it is.

At a Sustainable Investment conference in New York City, I asked the four speakers on the keynote panel — each a CEO or SVP of a leading "responsible investment fund" — to offer their definition of the term. All struggled and none could. At a Washington, D.C., conference, a senior member of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spoke on what her agency was doing to help create sustainable communities. Again, I asked her to define the term. "You know, we at the EPA have really struggled with the term and we've had a really hard time trying to define what sustainability really means. I'd have to say we're still working on it." I was dumbfounded as she spoke with great authority on the topic yet was unable to define it. It reminded me a bit of the 1982 Supreme Court decision on obscenity and pornography in which Justice Potter Stewart said he could not define the term but declared, "I know it when I see it." I think we need to do a little better than that, as I believe our very existence on this planet may hang in the balance.

On the Bloomberg News website an entire section is devoted to sustainability, with topics ranging widely from corporate governance to health care law, the electrical blackout at the Super Bowl, drug abuse, assault weapons, snow storms, and battery problems with the new Boeing 787. One must wonder how these disparate issues all fall within the term "sustainability." Or, is Bloomberg using the term as a catch-all for everything that has to do with "social and environmental issues — and then some," trying to market itself as a news agency concerned about a topic that it is having a hard time defining?

The Financial Times issued a general invitation to an afternoon conference in London on Oct. 17, 2012, on "Sustainable and Ethical Investment." The lead-in was "Socially responsible investment (SRI) allows people to align their personal beliefs regarding environmental, social and ethical concerns with their financial objectives." I would suggest that SRI and sustainability are two very different terms with very different meanings, yet forward-thinking organizations such as the Financial Times continue to confuse the two. In my view, SRI focuses on issues such as labor, the environment, and not investing in companies involved with products or issues that the investor finds distasteful such as conflict minerals, liquor, tobacco, weapons of war, testing of cosmetics on animals, and so on. Sustainability is entirely another matter.

In 1987, the United Nations issued the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. The commission was chaired by Dr. Harlem Brundtland, a physician and former prime minister of Norway who later became the head of the World Health Organization. (For those with a serious interest in world affairs, I highly recommend reading the full 247-page report.) In this seminal document the term "sustainable development" was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The needs they refer to are food, clothing, shelter and the ability to work and live in a qualitatively consistent manner. Of primary concern was the issue of how we, as a people, will continue to support ourselves in the face of a continually growing global population and dwindling natural resources.

The issues raised in 1987 haven't gone away. In many ways, they've gotten considerably worse. In the past 26 years, we've added 2 billion more people to Planet Earth. Today, we have slightly more than 7 billion people on the earth — compared to 3 billion in 1960. In just over 50 years (the equivalent of two generations), we've more than doubled the size of our world population with the anticipation that by the year 2050 we'll have almost 10 billion people on the planet, a 43 percent increase over today's population and a 400 percent increase since 1950! That's right. We will have increased our global population by four times in just 100 years! Even more disturbing are the projections beyond 2050 — numbers the U.S. Census Bureau hasn't published.

Extrapolations indicate the global population will continue to grow, especially in the developing countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, much of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America until we plateau at about 16 billion around 2125 or 2150. One must wonder what the quality of life will be like with that many people on earth.

Given the challenges of the next 25 to 40 years — a space of time I believe we can affect — what can we do? I suggest we start by defining "sustainability" in a way that is useful for the apparel and textiles industry.

The word "sustain" is a verb meaning "to keep up or keep going, as an action or process: to sustain a conversation." I offer a variation of the Brundtland Commission definition that could be used in the context of what we do on a daily basis.

Sustainability is:
  • In the context of a societal unit (individual, family, tribe, village, town, city, county, state, country), the capacity to survive and thrive for the short and long term including, but not limited to, its ability to provide for the basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter and medical care, and;
  • In the context of an organizational unit (business, non-profit or government), the capacity to meet its objectives of providing goods and/or services to its customers or constituents in the short and long term, and;
  • For both societal and organizational units, their capacity to achieve their objectives but not by compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Thus, for companies in the apparel industry, a sustainable business is one that can source and/or manufacture clothing (apparel, textiles, footwear, accessories, etc.) that meets the needs of their customers and consumers now and into the future. While this might sound like a simple term, I suggest that a truly sustainable business is one that:
  • Uses only renewable raw materials: cotton, wool, flax, linen, silk and certain plant-derived polyesters, acetate and rayon.
  • Uses only renewable energy sources such as plant and garbage waste, wind, solar, wave and hydroelectric in securing, processing and transporting raw materials and finished products.
  • Uses only renewable and/or recyclable buildings and machinery built from stone, wood, natural fibers, rubber and steel.
  • Only purchases raw materials, packaging, transportation and advertising services — in short, all goods and services that support the product and brands — from companies that use only renewable energy and raw materials.
The current effects of not moving toward this path will have, in my view, dire environmental and planetary consequences over the next 20 to 50 years and beyond. And, I also believe that our industry, as it is today, will face serious, negative consequences if the present business model isn't radically changed.

As a current example, anyone who follows global environmental matters knows that China is literally choking to death on its air pollution. China uses 47 percent of the world's coal to generate electricity to power its manufacturing machine — from steel to appliances, automobiles to engine parts, and toys to tableware. They have very few scrubbers on their smokestacks, and pollution control technology for their trucks and farm machinery is virtually non-existent. Factories and trucks belch exhaust unabated at an ever-increasing rate.

China's own citizens and business leaders are raising their voices that "something must be done to fix the situation" yet in the past month, air pollution levels have jumped to new highs — to more than three times the level of "Extreme Danger" posed to humans and animals. A good day in Shanghai or Beijing is one when the sun can be seen and drivers don't need to turn on their headlights at noon. One must ask: Why is China choking itself to death when the leaders know full well the human and environmental costs of their actions? An increasing number of people are asking that question. And, is half of the pollution that's clogging the U.S. West Coast really blown over across the Pacific Ocean from China? Some scientists believe so.

China isn't the only country with challenges. For all the progress that's been made in Los Angeles, Chicago, Mexico City, Athens, New York and Rio, we have a long way to go in the 10 most polluted cities on the planet, which are located in Peru, China, Russia, India, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Zambia, according to The Blacksmith Institute.

At the same time, I don't believe that dire straits are a foregone conclusion. We can change for the better and ensure sustainable businesses and enterprises. It will require focused commitment and collective action. Here are a few no-cost ways to get started:
  • Engage every employee in your organization to think about how you can create a "lean enterprise." Use the principles of lean manufacturing across your entire business from sales and headquarters offices through raw materials and finished product, transportation, manufacturing, distribution centers, packaging, labeling, advertising and more.
  • Minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the use of all chemicals in every part of the supply chain. Regardless of their apparent "neutrality", far too many chemicals have negative downstream impacts on the environment, treatment facilities, capture and reuse, and the energy used to create them and transport them into the supply chain. The more we pay to "treat" chemicals in a publically owned treatment works, the more clean water costs us all. The AAFA has done a remarkably good job of pulling together a Restricted Substances List.
  • Add another "R" to the old "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle" mantra: Refuse. Refuse to use products that have marginal or no value. Consider bottled water. We generate enough half-liter water bottles every year to extend from earth to the moon and back 40 times! (See the Pacific Institute website for the energy, oil and water consumed to produce all our water bottles.) Do we really need to have bottled water when clean tap water would work just as well? Why not go back to using washable glasses and a water pitcher for meetings? Look at how well New York City has done protecting its water supply – the best in the world by all accounts.
  • Seek out and/or create renewable energy sources for every part of your supply chain. Add windmills, biomass energy facilities and solar panels wherever possible. Current indicators show we've used just about half of the world's oil supply. Starting in 2015 or so, global production is predicted to drop precipitously to near zero levels by the year 2080. Alternative energy sources may be a bit more expensive now but they will only cost more, and at a faster rate, as oil comes out of our energy chain. The cost of coal and natural gas, while relatively inexpensive now, will only increase as oil disappears, and population and demand increase.
  • Seek fix-priced, long-term supply agreements. You may recall that Southwest Airlines had a 10-year jet fuel agreement with its suppliers, which allowed the company to thrive and grow as competitors faced huge price increases with jet fuel prices skyrocketing through the roof.
There are a multitude of additional steps to move any enterprise on the path toward sustainability. Forestalling action will only compound the challenges in the future and have the real potential to make today's economically viable solutions impossibly expensive tomorrow. (One only has to look at the massive cost increases to build mass transit and high-speed rail systems in the US.) What do you need to do to ensure your business will not only sustain itself, but survive and thrive into the future?

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Leaders in the apparel, textile and accessories industry can change the course of history.

Steven Jesseph is the COO for the consultancy group ICG and is based in Cornelius, N. C., and is the former CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) and vice president, compliance and risk management for Sara Lee Branded Apparel.
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