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In My Opinion: Sustainability—the Ultimate Win-Win

By: Michael Overstreet
Posted: June 5, 2007
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I recently attended a client’s vendor of the year ceremonies, during which I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting regarding sustainability. The client’s vice president of sales for the Wal-Mart account and the firm’s director of sourcing facilitated the meeting. The attendees were primarily from the packaging community.

As a former chemical industry manager and now a fragrance and natural products manager, I have seen the sustainability initiative cresting for a long time, and wonder why it has taken so long. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has become an economy built on consumerism. As technologies and innovations have increased the speed of change and lowered associated costs, we have slowly but surely become a disposable society. Now the challenge becomes more global as the rapidly developing manufacturing economies around the world vie for a share of Earth’s limited resource. Russia, China, India and Brazil continue to consume vast quantities of precious limited resources to develop their own economies and increase and improve the quality of life for their own citizens.

A colleague who attended the vendor presentation with me exclaimed, “This is brilliant!” The presenters effectively tied sustainability to the economic benefit of the program. Wal-Mart is touting annual estimated savings in the billions—yes, billions. But success is not going to be driven by corporations. God’s working capital, if you will, is the Earth’s resources, which are finite in their abundance. If this initiative is destined to succeed it will be due to the consumer, not the corporations, which, it may go without saying, are motivated by profit. Sustainability efforts are destined to succeed due to the moral obligation that we all have to this planet, not the economic implications.

In their book, Revolutionary Wealth, Alvin and Heidi Toffler point to the speed of change. The American institution of business is cruising along on an imaginary highway at 100 mph. Following close behind the lead group at 90 mph, “civil society”  is made up of nongovernmental grassroots organizations (NGOs). These groups are fast, flexible and organized, promoting their causes with great agility. They can run circles around huge corporations and government institutions. The third group, moving at 60 mph, is the American family, the makeup of which has changed considerably in the last 30 to 40 years. At 30 mph, the fourth group on the highway is labor unions. For half a century now, we have seen the U.S. workforce evolve—from the Industrial Age into the Knowledge Age—away from interchangeable to noninterchangeable skills. Union representation in the workforce has fallen steadily from 33% in 1955 to 12.5% today. In essence, one could argue that NGOs are replacing the unions in how consumers band together and promote their causes.
The Toflers’ summary of organizational velocity is a classic rationale as to why sustainability will be embraced, adopted and supported with consumer dollars. It’s because businesses and consumers, individually and in groups, are ahead of the institutions on the change curve.