There are NO truly sustainable products today! This was a somewhat surprising declaration coming from business leaders in the sustainability arena like Adam Lowry of Method and Andy Ruben of Wal-Mart. In the May 4 Sustainable Abundance Mini-Conference they were joined by Bob Adams of IDEO and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery in discussing the fact that our entire industrial system is built on the assumption of infinite resources and must be radically redesigned to achieve sustainability.
A few of the key take-aways from the conference were:
Increased transparency is a reality for companies whether they like it or not and will drive greater focus on sustainability. This is simply a result of today’s communication technologies and the trend will continue to accelerate.
To understand the sustainability of a product you have to take a whole-system view. Andy showed a vivid example of a can of tomatoes. The tomatoes were grown and canned in California but the metal for the can came from Korea, the spices came from Indonesia, and when you finished mapping the journey of every element, lines spanned most of the globe.
Through design and innovation it is possible to simultaneously improveproduct performance and sustainability. Adam discussed Method’s revolutionary new laundry detergent that is smarter, easier and greener than conventional detergents. Customers love the innovative new pump bottle and super concentrated formula that radically improves the laundry experience. This is an important step forward, but Adam is quick to point out that a fully sustainable laundry solution would eliminate bottled detergent entirely. Because disruptive change of this magnitude would be resisted by detergent manufacturers and customers alike we will have to get there in steps.
The short term focus of Wall Street makes it difficult to maintain the focus required to achieve breakthroughs in sustainability. Method and Straus are both private companies and believe that enables them to be pioneers.
There was a spirited debate between Andy of Wal-Mart and Albert of Straus regarding whether sustainable and low-cost can co-exist, particularly in the food category. Straus Family Creamery is a small, family-owned, organic creamery producing high quality dairy products with milk sourced from their own dairy and from two other local, family dairies. Their focus on sustainability extends to all aspects of the operation. Straus enjoys strong and growing demand despite higher costs and higher prices than dairy products from the factory farming sector. Andy acknowledged that a big company like Wal-Mart is somewhat baffled by how to source from small suppliers like Straus. Looks like the challenge of sustainable food will have to be tackled in another conference.
— Debra Dunn