sustainability person looking up in forest
Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

Sustainability is the New Premium

Soon, it may be cooler to show up to a party in a Tesla  than with a limo. Green is quickly becoming the new black.

But sustainability wasn’t always trendy. Up until just a few years ago, it was largely  perceived as a draconian measure, adopted by a mob of self-righteous hippies, holding “Death to Capitalism” signs, oblivious to the fact that capitalism is how their parents support them. Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, you had some well-off businessmen, giving nonchalant, disdainful responses from the comfort of one of their five summer homes, along the lines of “Well, while we’re at it, why don’t we just go back to the stone age and live like cavemen?!”

But the truth is, capitalism and sustainability are not two mutually exclusive concepts.  Sustainability doesn’t have to mean denouncing all of life’s materialistic pleasures and merely surviving in some dystopian post-apocalyptic world. Sustainability doesn’t profess that it’s a sin to play the Playstation on your Plasma TV after a hard day’s work – on the contrary, it means doing so with a clear conscience, because that Playstation and Plasma TV were made from some recycled materials and a portion of their price went toward green initiatives, like making recycling easier and cheaper, thus creating a mini circular economy, a little circle of life if you will. 

Sustainability, by definition, boils down to the idea of self-sufficiency, balance, and harmony as opposed to extremes. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. And the narrative about it has finally started to reflect that.

“The success of our sustainability initiatives is determined by how effortless they are to adopt,” Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO of Reformation, a company for sustainable women’s clothing and accessories, says. “We start with small digestible solutions that people can incorporate into their daily lives to make an impact and highlight how those changes can affect the big picture.”

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Consider how wildly sci-fi the idea of going to the moon must have sounded back in 1902, before the first powered flight had even taken place. Yet, 67 years later, going to the moon became a reality, only 66 years after the first ever powered flight in 1903.

If we can overcome the boundaries of gravity and find a way to venture out into space, within such a short time frame at that, why wouldn’t we be able to do something that is much more in line with the natural order – living in harmony with nature, as opposed to reigning over it like tyrants, daring it to return the favor?

In fact, unlike flying and space travel, a sustainable future doesn’t have to go through that first, terrifying leap of faith. It’s not even meant to be a sharp U-turn, as some people might imagine it. On the contrary, Aflolo believes starting small and taking it one step at a time is the right approach.

“To start, brands can focus on sustainable materials — so they can source an organic or better material, and just plug that into their same business model … This one is a bit harder, but look into operations and business impact to offer better transparency around manufacturing processes (which is often the dirtiest part of the industry) and hold your business accountable to start making changes. The big and small changes will add up. If we want to have transformational change, we all need to participate,” she explains.

The belief in the accumulative power of small changes is shared by Marie-Claire Deveu, Chief Sustainability Officer of Kering Group, a global luxury group of brands such as Gucci and Saint Laurent. An unequivocal testament to that belief is the fact that in 2015, the group made its leading sustainability methodology open-source, for everyone, including its competitors, to use.

And yes, make no mistake, open-sourcing its sustainability methodology really is against Kering’s best business interests, because some of the best sustainability practices overlap with the best business practices, especially in key areas like improving efficiency and reducing energy consumption, and the associated  costs.

Speaking of reducing costs, lower costs for manufacturers usually mean lower costs for consumers. Over time and when scaled up, sustainability-conscious products don’t even have to be pricier, for either party.  

Kering’s open-source sustainability methodology is called the Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) initiative, which “makes the invisible impacts of business visible, quantifiable and comparable,” and has proven to be “a new way to look at our business, uncovering opportunities that would have otherwise remained invisible, innovating our business models, improving our processes’ efficiency and reducing our environmental impact.”

Another sustainability methodology that has garnered attention is fashion retailer Everlane’s “radical transparency” policy, which means making everything along the supply chain, from sourcing practices, to manufacturing facilities and materials, public knowledge. This is very reminiscent of the voluntary third-party testing initiative that has become the gold standard for legitimacy in the largely underregulated CBD industry, where independent tests by impartial labs are done in order to vouch for products’ exact contents and label accuracy. Consumers have come to expect a third-party lab report, and the lack thereof automatically places a product and the company behind it in a dubious, lower-tier category.

It’s not unlikely that Everlane’s “radical transparency” policy catches on and becomes the third-party testing of the sustainability niche, especially when you consider the practical business benefits it can bring along.

“By having greater transparency, you have far more knowledge about your raw materials, where they come from, how much you use and how you use them,” says Tyler Gillard, head of sector projects and legal adviser in the Responsible Business Conduct Unit of the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Investment Division. “This is useful not just in terms of your ethics but also for running your business.”

But the aforementioned examples aren’t even that small of a step toward sustainability, but full-on initiatives and policies. Sometimes, a business model that operates on a smaller and simpler scale can capture the essence of sustainability in a way that resonates more deeply with regular consumers.

Consider 4ocean, a company that’s known for its unassuming, yet almost universally pretty bracelets, made from recycled materials. For every 4ocean product purchased, the company pulls one pound of trash from the ocean, rivers, and coastlines. It’s a perfect little example of sustainability done right – instead of turning sustainability into charity and expecting people to magically do the right thing, they turn the right thing into a visually appealing product that happens to come with a nice little pat on the back. It’s basically a way of commodifying sustainability.

And the power of that little pat on the back is not to be underestimated, in fact, some people even get drunk on it. To circle back to the social status that comes with owning a hybrid, a survey from 2007, when sustainability was nowhere near as hot of a topic as it is now, revealed that two of Prius owners’ top motives to purchase this car were to make a statement about themselves and show the world that they care.

This explains why Prius has come to symbolize a hybrid high horse for obnoxious Karens who care about the environment only to the extent to which it elevates their sense of social superiority. Nevertheless, this kind of self-righteousness shouldn’t give sustainability a bad name. And by the looks of it, it no longer does.  

An international study by Unilever, a major consumer goods company, found that 33% of consumers choose brands that do social and environmental good. This creates a €966 billion opportunity, which Unilever is already tapping into. Out of the company’s hundreds of brands, the ones that place a focus on sustainability are growing 30% faster than the rest of the business. 

Naturally, the importance of sustainability grows as consumers’ age drops. 73% of millennial respondents were willing to spend more on a sustainable product, all the way back in 2015. 

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that Apple has committed to be 100% carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030.  

“Businesses have a profound opportunity to help build a more sustainable future.The

innovations powering our environmental journey are not only good for the planet – they’ve helped us make our products more energy efficient. Climate action can be the

foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation, and durable economic  

Growth,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, says. 

The new ending underneath: 

As the famous quote goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We learned to fish, alright, but what happens when the fish starts running out? You need to learn how to breed fish. That is real sustainability. And we don’t even need to learn it, but merely to re-learn it, because it’s nothing we haven’t done before. 

12,000 years ago, in 10,000 B.C., people realized that the nomadic lifestyle, living from hunt to hunt, constantly looking for food, is mre survival, rather than living, and unsustainable in the long run. This triggered the historic shift to permanent settlements and farming, to reliable food sources, to civilization as we know it and everything that comes with it, including capitalism. We’re facing yet another pivotal moment in human history, and it’s on us to recognize it as such and rise to the challenge. The alternative is to eventually be thrust back in time, to a primitive life, a life from hunt to hunt, to literal survival. But if mankind has consistently shown something over and over again throughout its history, it is its ability to adapt and be better off for it in the long run.