The Responsible Company
What does it mean to be a “green company” or to be a “sustainable brand”? These terms have been thrown around quite widely, and increasingly, it seems that all companies are “sustainable”. Looking at the list of speakers at the upcoming Sustainable Brands Conference (Detroit, May 2017) and even the Forbes list of the top 100 sustainable companies with market values of $2 billion reveals some very questionable candidates. One can’t help but ask, are these brands really sustainable? From car and computer manufacturers, to clothing retailers and large-scale food producers: are these companies giving back more to the environment than they are taking? Are they aware of the full impacts of their products from production, to use, to disposal? And what are they doing to address these impacts? Are they ensuring that all the farmers and employees in their supply chains are receiving fair and equitable wages?
I would wager to say that for the vast majority of these companies, the answer is no. Even among the companies we feel relatively sure are sustainable, many still rely on the extraction of natural resources, use of energy and generation of waste to produce their product or service. There is no way around it, yet. So to speak of sustainable companies seems to be an oxymoron. And while there are companies that are taking note of the impacts their operations have on the environment and society, and are measuring, reporting and making adjustments to improve these impacts, until they are actually able to return more to the environment than they take, it seems that “responsible” is a more modest and apt word to use as these companies move towards creating businesses that take less from nature than it can replace.
So how does a company become more responsible? The first thing is they must move from thinking solely about their shareholders to being more inclusive and considering all stakeholders. This includes employees, communities, customers and nature. For employees, companies owe them safe, transparent and empowering places to work with fair wages. For customers, companies owe them high quality products that are also safe to use. In the communities where the company is operating, they should engage in ways that are socially/environmentally sound. And for nature, companies must, at the very least, honour the Precautionary Principal and aim to find ways to produce their products while doing the least amount of harm, especially irreversible harm, to the environment.
It also means taking a good look at the complete impact of their product or service from the beginning of its manufacturing, to its use and final disposal. This requires companies to look deeply into their full supply chains to understand how the materials they are using were produced or sourced. Take a company like Patagonia who has completed several Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) on their product lines. When the company first conducted this assessment they were surprised to learn that the cotton used in their clothing line had a huge environmental impact due to its production being heavily based on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Within a short period of time, they switched to using 100% organic cotton. Yet, even with this switch the company still cannot claim that its polo shirt is “sustainable”, as its cultivation requires 2,700 litres of water (enough water for 900 people), generates 21 pounds of carbon dioxide from field to warehouse, and three times its weight in waste. So even though the company has gone to great lengths to produce their clothing using organic practices, that piece of clothing still generates emissions, uses significant water resources, and generates waste.
Being a responsible company means knowing your impacts, favouring improvement, and sharing what you learn with others in the company, industry and beyond.