1.Don’t mention that it’s a piece on the slipperiness of the term ‘sustainability.’
2.Use an attractive and provocative featured image.
3. Avoid using the term paradigm at all costs.
4.Use the current meme of titling posts as lists of things and then reference it as a sly way of getting people to read a post that isn’t about lists.
5. Make up a half-clever list to make sure people aren’t too annoyed when they realize #4 is true.
Sustainability is a word that is rapidly losing whatever flavor it once had. Usually this is simply a result of overuse, like a song that you hear too many times on the radio. However in this particular instance it is not simple overuse that is stripping whatever resonance and meaning ‘sustainable’ might have.
Too many times I’ve heard the word sustainable or sustainability in the same sentence as the word ‘entrepreneur’. Capitalism and my understanding of sustainability have the same kind of relationship as I once had with a longtime girlfriend. I would express my goals and aspirations and she would express her desire to monetize them. It wasn’t that there was anything intrinsically wrong with my girlfriend wanting me to capitalize on my aspirations (funny word that– capitalize) what was wrong was if I had perished while succeeding she would have been fine with that. My only value was as a potential income generator.
Which is fine in a business partnership bereft of any emotional ties but fundamentally problematic when it underpins a romantic relationship. So when a term like sustainability, which has a philosophical component built into its meaning, is pressed up against capitalism– which is a methodology raised by certain of its adherents to the status of a religion, funny things can happen. And by funny I mean tragic.
Look at the mission statements of any number of large companies and manufacturing concerns. Starbucks, Chevron, Adidas and Apple just to name four, all of which allude to concern for responsible environmental policies (incidentally I found these all on the “Linking Sustainability’ website which promises they will assist in ‘CREATING POSITIVE IMPACT OF SUSTAINABILITY IN BUSINESS.’). Walmart has built a whole advertising campaign around the word ‘sustainable’ and while they have engaged in any number of cosmetic demonstrations of their good will, the whole of their business model is drenched in a kind of vulture capitalism that disallows any real sustainability. (For more on that read here and here.)
The current manager of the Alberta oilsands– CAPP or the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has this to say in their mission statement: ‘CAPP’s mission is to enhance the economic sustainability of the Canadian upstream petroleum industry in a safe and environmentally and socially responsible manner, through constructive engagement and communication with governments, the public and stakeholders in the communities in which we operate.’
Part of the dissonance around the word itself comes from the fact that when I say sustainable I mean ‘utilizing methods and resources in a way that is minimally harmful and considerate of future generations’ what CAPP means is what can we label as ‘environmentally and socially responsible’ and get away with.
One of our interview subjects sent me a link to a website called Fashion 4 Development (which is beautifully designed and executed) because she felt it had some value. Tiina has some cred in the sustainable universe so it was of immediate interest to me. And while its Mission Statement is filled with sentences like ‘F4D’s vision includes the creation of holistic opportunities for sustainable economic growth and independence of disenfranchised peoples throughout the world through the tangible expression of fashion and beauty’ it was otherwise both inspiring and moderately unsettling. Aside from the annoyance I feel when I read hyperbolic crap, I found the F4D people actually engaged in an earnest attempt to achieve their stated goals as opposed to using the language of sustainability simply as a marketing tool. It is that distinction that decides, for me, where I put my money down. Effect matters as well (because it doesn’t make a lot of difference how well intentioned you are if you perpetuate exploitation and resource stripping) but the transparency and goodwill of F4D create an opportunity for different kinds of exchange. And maybe these different kinds of exchange will allow the possibility of replacing some of the zero-sum practices that pervade most economic models.
I’ve accounted for the inspired reaction– now to the unsettled part. The potential to exploit people’s goodwill by linking words and phrases like ‘sustainable’ and ‘independence of disenfranchised people’ to marketing campaigns– whose only intention is undermining people’s critical facility by appealing to the squishy parts of our brains– is something I both disavow and fear. My wife Sarah and I are currently fighting a running battle over ‘Tom’s’ which is an apt example of the above. ‘Tom’s’ promises that if you buy a pair of simply made canvas shoes for fifty or sixty dollars they will provide a pair for free to a person who otherwise would have to go barefoot. Seems like a pretty good deal right? And since they partner with World Vision to make sure that once the child grows out of that pair they get another, it even has some follow up. My objection is less about the practice and more about intention and creating more landfill. The cheap ass canvas shoes they sell have a pretty short half-life and if the pair given away is of the same quality then how much real value is there. Also I have a tendency to wonder if the ‘Tom’s’ brand isn’t taking space away from something that could deliver what they offer in a more useful way.
Of course it’s possible that I’m utterly wrong and I know that. But it really doesn’t hurt to ask.
Just ask a couple of questions– that’s all.