Defining Sustainability

Sustainability has become so frequently spoken of in the produce industry that one might presume executives had a clear vision of what it entails. There are as many industry definitions as there are programs and proposals, and the end result of this cacophony on the subject is very unclear.

That may be how it should be. As with so much in the industry, it has been big buyers’ sustainability programs that introduced the concept to many growers and other vendors. The first inclination of producers has been to simply pray for standardization in the hope of avoiding the expense and hassle of duplicate audits and differentiating standards as we have experienced in the food-safety world.

Yet in many ways, sustainability is particularly unsuited to a proscriptive standard, and much of the industry headache is coming about out of misguided efforts to create a one-size-fits-all type of approach to sustainability.

It is helpful, even imperative, to start the discussion of sustainability by defining what it is not. And it is not environmentalism. Though in a sense obvious — why create a new term when a concept has been around for decades? — a notion that sustainability and being “green” are the same thing is a common misconception.

Sustainability differs from environmentalism in that in addition to acknowledging an environmental responsibility, sustainability also recognizes a social and economic responsibility.

Many in the industry want to run from the idea that businesses have a social responsibility. Sustainability’s social sphere is highly divisive. Beyond the notion that laws must be obeyed, there is no consensus on how much workers should be paid or what level of charity or community support is reasonable or any other metric one might throw against the social responsibility of business.

Yet dealt with alone, environmentalism is a concept with no limits. One can always reduce one’s footprint on the environment by using fewer chemicals, less water, less carbon output. But held as a value on its own, environmentalism doesn’t stop at any particular point. Why not let half the land revert to nature? Why not all of it?

Extremism of that type is unsustainable. If someone proposes leaving land fallow, how would that environmental demand comport with our social responsibility to produce adequate food and our financial or economic responsibility to sustain the business?

Sustainability broadly considered — with the inherent tension among the environmental, social and economic spheres — ensures a kind of moderation. Extremism, which pushes things too far in any one direction, winds up being unsustainable by the other measures.

Because there is no objective agreement on how to balance the three spheres of sustainability, efforts that seek a proscriptive standard for sustainability in the produce industry inevitably wind up making subjective value judgments.

Imagine three farms:

Farm # 1

  • Reduced synthetic chemical use by 80 percent last year.
  • Increased use of substances permitted in organic agriculture (copper, sulfur, et al) by 135 percent
  • Yield dropped 14 percent
  • Stopped matching the 401K plan

Farm #2

  • Switched to approved GMO seed for 65 percent of production
  • Overall yield up 30 percent
  • Synthetic chemical use down 26 percent
  • Majority of the board of directors is female
  • Donated 12 percent of crop to earthquake and storm relief overseas

Farm #3

  • Donated library to local community college
  • Funded scholarship program for migrant worker children
  • Invested in farm in South Africa working to empower indigenous population
  • Employees own 30 percent of the company through ESOP

Now, which farm is more sustainable? Not only is there no way to tell, but it is also not clear the question has real meaning. Yet a proscriptive sustainability standard must choose.

When one speaks to the British vendor community, which has been working on sustainability longer than the U.S. trade, it becomes clear they have no usable definition either. Instead, they worry about what individual stakeholders want. If they sell Tesco, the program is Nature’s Choice; if they work with Marks & Spencer, it is Field to Fork. Of course, these organizations have to please a broader audience — government, media, citizenry, etc. — so through the retailers, a broad stakeholder engagement does take place.

Efforts to develop one industry standard for sustainability are, at best, going to create a chimera, something that might pass for sustainability but, actually, is just a representation of a particular bias.

Every piece of land is different, each crop is different, moral standards differ. So if Wal-Mart wants to focus on packaging reduction and J. Sainsbury wants to focus on increasing its percentage of business done under the Fair Trade program to help workers, there is no standardization because there is no clear right or wrong.

What we can do is try to excite the industry about becoming more sustainable. We can help people look at where they are and help define where they want to go.

Well-considered sustainability is driven by the enthusiasm of people doing things that are compelling, and in so doing, helping move their companies and the industry to a more sustainable future.