In 2015, the United Nations followed up on the Millennium Development Goals with a new set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set a series of 169 targets, mostly to be achieved by 2030. September’s UN General Assembly reported that only 15% of the targets have so far been achieved.
One of these, SDG 12, was called ‘Responsible Consumption and Production.’ Target 12.6 requires states to ‘Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.’
It is widely accepted that there are three strands or pillars of sustainable development : Social, Environmental and Business (often called People, Planet, Profit). For true SD, all three need to be satisfied, but too often the profit side appears to take precedence. Any measure which reduces profit faces an uphill battle, regardless of the people/planet advantages.
‘We make our products to satisfy consumer demand and a gap in the market’. This refrain, and ones very much like it, are heard across boardrooms, shareholder meet- ings and public relations exercises across the world. It is as though companies seek to legitimise whatever it is that they are doing because consumers require them to do it.
Consider the following (true) set of corporate statements:
- We are a US$100bn a year sector, our production is demand-led.
- We are an agile enterprise meeting market needs.
- Our product is plant-based, and our ethos is to ‘leave no trace’.
- Our workers have a vested interest in the company performing well.
- While not employee-owned, we have a strong hierarchy and encourage internal promotion.
- We don’t use air transport to access global markets, moving our goods in innovative ways.
- We encourage local entrepreneurs to identify their own markets.
Is this a company embracing responsible production? Sure, lots of boxes are ticked, and it all sounds very laud- able. The problem is, though, the product here is cocaine!
We are living through the Anthropocene age, with ongoing crises of climate, biodiversity, public health and cost of living. Using ‘we are market-led’ is not, by itself, a guarantee either that your business is engaged in respon- sible production, or that your customers are engaged in responsible consumption.
Sometimes, the most responsible production is no production.
This is not a new concept. In 1986, the Vienna Convention on Substances That Deplete The Ozone Layer banned the production of chlorofluorocarbons because of their harmful impact on the ozone layer. In 1992, Directive 89/677/EEC banned the use of most lead-based paint for general domestic sales, because of the harm to human health. The manufacture and sale of incandescent light- bulbs is now banned in dozens of countries worldwide.
None of these measures were market-driven, they were driven by a recognition that if particular products have wider negative impacts on society and the environment, that should trump the economic aspect. All of these will have negatively impacted the revenue streams of the companies involved.
Rare is the company in 2023 that does not fly the sustainability flag, but rarer still is the company that considers sustainability holistically in the context of what it is doing. If your business model involves air freighting products thousands of miles on a daily basis, then reducing the amount of packaging by 10%, or making the wrappers compostable, is merely tokenistic. It is a way of appeasing customers that their irresponsible consumption is still ‘a good thing’.
Sometimes, the most responsible production is no production, and the most responsible consumption is no consumption. Provocative yes – but has the time come for drastic change in our thinking as both consumers and businesses leaders?
We welcome your thoughts!