Sustainability Under the Microscope

Businesses and brands don't tire of touting their sustainability projects when they want to shine a light on their resource-efficient, future-oriented, and socially responsible companies. Often, they feature in industry magazines which describe in impressive detail why company X won sustainability award Y or certificate Z. Those articles tend to be accompanied by impressive photographs of those glamorous award nights. 

But what does sustainability look like in those companies after the cameras have disappeared and the first wave of enthusiasm about this new, “green” initiative has subsided? How long can the sustainability champion use the momentum to push and implement further changes in both the production and distribution departments until the day-to-day business dictates a different set of priorities? And who exactly establishes the standards, which are the basis for many awards and certificates, by which we judge whether a company (or product) is, in fact, sustainable? 

By now, the word “sustainability” has been severely overrun and undervalued. Add to that the repeated media reports about appalling conditions and deadly accidents in the sweatshops of this world, and the credibility gap between what brands say and what they do seems unbridgeable. Looked at from the customer’s point of view, raised eyebrows and indifferent shrugging of shoulders are the only logical consequence when another brand claims to be “green, safe, and fair.” When companies pay wages so low that workers can barely sustain their livelihoods, when safety standards and social security don’t even exist on paper, those brands contradict the “green” image they so confidently claim whenever the cameras are on.

It needs more than a well-placed smart marketing campaign to prove credibly that your company isn’t riding the sustainability wave just because everybody else is and your customers “demand it.” Sustainability, genuinely implemented, is complex, and it affects the entire value chain of a product: planning, production, distribution and disposal/recycling at the end of its life cycle.

But if your company wants to claim a green seal, it doesn’t start and stop with you. Your production and distribution partners, your logistics and modes of transportation, your value-add processes at home and abroad – those are just some examples of what else needs to be factored in, too. And this complexity is the reason why many large corporations and brands lag massively behind when it comes to sound sustainability practices. If you want to claim “sustainability” for you, you must understand not just the term, but how it translates into everyday practices in your company, and then implement and refine those consistently. Reception or boardroom – sustainable practices are everybody’s business, every day, and especially when the cameras are off.