Sustainability vs. Social Capitalism

When I attended Product Stewardship 2018 in Washington, D.C., I found much of the discussion centered around sustainability. There were many product stewards that spoke about how their businesses were trying to be more sustainable and, in general, about the goal of sustainable businesses and products.

What struck me as interesting was the conflict inherent in a non-service-based business’s goal of selling more product to more people. Without the product somehow being recycled in a service loop, it would seem to me that this is not sustainability, but social capitalism.

Yes, Sustainability Can Be a Strategy

Let’s think about this for a second: if we need more resources to build more products for more people, then how do we make this sustainable? Sure, we could mine or harvest resources in a more sustainable way, but the linear process itself is not sustainable.

For this reason, it is interesting to ask: are we simply becoming social capitalists? By this I mean, are companies now judged by consumers to a higher standard where they need to make greener products–whether it is sustainable or not–due to social backlash? Is this becoming a greenwash event in our society?

Corporate social responsibility and the risk of greenwashing

There are many examples of making ingredients or products greener where the products become less sustainable. For example, there has been an outrage around plastic straws in the last couple of years. Some have moved to ban them (without replacement), but others are calling for paper substitutes. If one truly looks at the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of this substitution, there are inevitably unintended consequences which could drive up sustainability costs.

While circular economic principles can change this paradigm, we are still seeing companies rush to make greener products for their customers that are not truly more sustainable.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. Do you buy products based on sustainability factors? Why or why not?

2. How do you think companies should think about sustainability and new products?

3. Do you think fundamentally that there is a movement towards social capitalism?

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