Positive Thought Five: Treat sustainability as a supply chain project

This pamphlet opened with the notion that “You can’t be unsustainable forever”.

Whether you are a business leader or an environmentalist, by agreeing that the current way we supply lifestyles is unsustainable, you are also agreeing that something is going to change. Unsustainability, after all, is the state of affairs that exists before sustainability .  All we can choose is which version of sustainable outcome we end up with: the likelihood of achieving the outcome we prefer depends on the timing and degree of intervention we make.

I  have already listed the extremes of sustainable outcomes:

  • Nature-led sustainability, or ’extinction’
  • Human-nature led sustainability, or  ‘war’
  • Human intellect-led sustainability or ’civilisation’

Extinction and war have nothing but dreadful political and commercial value, meaning the outcome we want is civilization. We could put our modern lives on hold and “go back to better times”. Some environmental commentators romanticise and celebrate a country-living lifestyle as sustainable.

In 2010 the BBC in the UK aired a series called It isn’t Easy Being Green. A middle aged husband moved his family into a derelict water mill, which they restored.  They grew organic vegetables and made their own energy. I lived in London, and I checked the real estate pages. I could not find 20 million derelict watermills to house every UK household. If I could, I don’t think it would be sustainable – 20 million households in the countryside would wreck the countryside.

A few low impact county lifestyles are fine, but not replicable for the entire population. Cities are more efficient at providing for high populations. This means a sustainable global economy will have a high proportion of the population living in cities. This re-enforces the notion the modern plasma TV lifestyle will be urban-centric. Once again, this brings sustainable development down to the basics – it’s about making the modern plasma TV lifestyle available for 9 billion people by 2050, whilst improving the wellbeing and life satisfaction for all on the planet.

Typically, sustainable development is described as finding the balance between environmental and social issues, and economics. Intellectually, this is right and understandable, but where is the call to action? Balance implies; being careful; steadiness; slowing down; or even stopping. Paradoxically, to make sustainable development happen, urgency is needed; action and speed. We are running out of stock in our supply chain to deliver the lifestyle we want. People are still suffering from poverty, while others are suffering from excess. We urgently need to reengineer the supply chain to make the best ‘bits’ accessible to more, and eliminate the worst ‘bits’.

We need to find new ways of making modern lives accessible so that they can be accessible for 9 billion people.  The retail metaphor serves us well. The core principle of good retail buying is a clear specification for the product the buyer wants to stock. If sustainable development is about the procurement of 9 billion sustainable lifestyles, what would the buying specification of a sustainable lifestyle be?

Telling people how they ought to live their lives can be uncomfortable. People must have the freedom to decide how they want to live their lives, but I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest some framing principles about what issues matter to help make those lives more sustainable.

Sticking with a positive approach, let’s imagine that society did deliver those 9 billion sustainable lifestyles by 2050. Only one planet’s worth of natural resources; every country achieving its carbon targets; and problematic health trends (like obesity and depression) under control.

How would someone in that wonderful future describe the differences between their life and the lives we lead in the unsustainable world of today? I imagine they might list ten key differences:

1. “I manage my own self esteem and health”  – Our bodies were designed for a hunter/ gatherer lifestyle, eating a specific menu of foods prepared in simple ways. We now have a more sedentary lifestyle; working at our desks, watching our TVs, eating more processed higher calorie foods, driving not walking. We have chosen to change how we use our bodies, and the fuel we use to drive our bodies.

Given this, it’s no wonder our bodies are changing shape. In a sustainable society, we will be (on average) much better at maintaining our health. We will also understand how to manage a sense of self-worth and appreciation for life which help keep mental health problems at bay.

2 “ I live within financial limits – personally and at national level”.  You cannot spend money you do not have and cannot afford to pay back if borrowed. It is about living within your limits. In a sustainable world, this would be how everyone lives, but of course, in that world everyone will have enough to live on.

3. “The products I buy help everyone in the supply chain achieve a better life” If I want a rug in my house, the person who made it should also be better off for my buying it. So, in a sustainable world there will be no exploitation of child labour, nor will waterways be polluted by dyes and detergents. Everyone in that rug supply chain, from sheep farmer to loom operator to customer, will have their lifestyle enhanced by the rug transaction. There are many products that are successfully embedding social and environmental standards into their supply chain. For example:

  • Rug Mark – avoiding the exploitation of child labour in rugs
  • Forest Stewardship Council – sustainable forest management for wood and paper
  • Rainforest Alliance- many products, like tea and coffee
  • Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – palm oil
  • Marine Stewardship Council – fish from the wild
  • Marine Aquarium Council – aquarium fish
  • Better Soya Initiative, Better Sugar Cane Initiative, Better Cotton Initiative – the names speak for themselves

It’s a popular model, with over 60 product stewardship schemes and counting, and over 250 eco-labels. If you are the Sustainability Officer of a retailer the sheer number is a distraction. What an interesting success story.

4. “I use clean and renewable energy “– This means using less and finding cleaner, lower carbon ways of making it. Quite a lot has been said on this elsewhere!

5.” I am active in a vibrant community” – One of the downsides of cities is that neighbourly spirit is less than in villages. Although we live very close to each other, we seem less neighbourly than those who live in villages or the country. Some weird psychology seems to be going on there. Maybe the cause is the pace of life, the cosmopolitan nature of it, but whatever the reason, societies that achieve sustainability will be more neighbourly, where people will automatically look after the infirm lady next door and not complain when the state cannot help. Who would argue against that?

6. “I live in a high trust society in which I talk with, rather than at, people” – This is where the environmental movement might need more focus. The over-preaching and criticisms of  the very people they wish to change may be turning people off, creating more inertia and negative opinion, rather than unlocking the available talent and willingness to change. Many look at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as an eco label to inform consumer choice. That’s all correct, but what made the FSC ahead of its time was the degree and nature of its collaboration.  The FSC standards were agreed upon by consensus across sectors who normally would have never met. As part of the FSC, the indigenous people of Peru may have sat at  same table as the lumber buyer for B&Q or Home Depot, and the tissue buyer for Kleenex may have worked alongside the forest manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Germany.  With so many supply chains needing so much collaboration, such trust and conversation will become mainstream.

7. “We balance technology with simplicity – Look at the Prius motor car – a piece of technology which did not exist in the early 1990s. Whilst the Prius is a eco-friendly car, using to drive a distance which you could easily work is still an ec-unfriendly thing to do. A sustainable future would find this balance between simplicity (walking) and high technology (eco-cars). Who knows? By 2050, the meeting I drive to the station and catch the train to attend might not involve travel at all, since I will talking via three dimensional video. 

8. “My leaders (political and business) have courage”.  Sustainability will not be achieved, or even maintained, by small incremental steps. Bold people will make bold decisions which, for most others, would have been too dangerous or scary.  Remember the planet and shop metaphor: retailers in trouble are more likely to  rescue themselves by bold actions, not incremental steps. The same may be true for achieving the 9 billion challenge.

9. “Far less ‘stuff’ is used to provide my lifestyle”.  This point is very subtle. It does not say ”I will use far less stuff in my life”, although we will probably use a bit less.  But if it really does take 11,000 litres of water to make one beef burger, then most of the potential saving is in how the burger is made, not how the consumer uses it.

The conclusion I have reached after 20 years visiting many different links in the supply chains of the products we use in our lives  is this is  still huge amounts of inefficiency in the creation of the goods with which you live your lifestyle and because of that there are many more products we can obtain from what we have without causing further harm to nature.

10. “The true value of nature is protected by economics”. Nine billion sustainable lifestyles will only be achieved after we have improved our appreciation and management of eco-services. One approach to this challenge is being explored in depth in a number of places; from Alberta to China, and from the US to India. It is known as “eco systems services” – seeing the forest as a provider of a natural resources which can be valued in monetary, social and ecological terms.  The basic idea is that the attributes of a piece of forested land, such as Forests of Papua New Guinea or the forest around the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, are assessed for the value they offer to a society. These valuations, often monetary estimates, cover such things as: carbon sequestration, watershed impacts, biodiversity, contributions to manufacturing output, grazing, hunting, fishing, leisure and tourism, aesthetics, and other aspects of forested lands.

Just after Christmas in 2010, the UK government announced its intention to sell the whole of the UK public forest estate (200,000 hectares), including many royal forests, state-owned ancient woodlands, sites of special scientific interest, heathland, campsites, farms and sporting estates  – all of which the government manages on our behalf. They wanted to transfer all of this from Crown ownership into private hands.   What the government failed to realise (but were soon made to through a united campaign), was that the forest is much more than an economic resource. While the government saw privatization as a means of job and wealth creation, they forgot the range of uses for which forested lands are valued by communities. They didn’t do the trade-off math required. They got it wrong and backed off reasonably quickly. Today, economics only look at ecosystems for the cash. In a world of 9 billion sustainable lifestyles, economics would value the softer benefits, too.

Nine billion quality lifestyles is a big ask of the planet. At the moment we are harming people and the planet to provide for the 7 billion alive today with a high proportion having a life where the adjective “quality” would be impossible to use. In this narrative, sustainability is the tool that finds the capacity to deliver the other 2 billon while doing less harm. It is that simple, and must be a part of good commerce and sound politics. The list of ten above encompasses the key trends or issues where interventions are required to reach that 9 billion challenge. Some of these ten are easy, and some are harder to achieve; but none contradict any sensible ambition to improve our current quality of life or business models.

Rethinking Corporate Sustainability – If Only We Ran the Planet Like a Shop! (374.8 KB)