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What companies really mean when they call themselves sustainable

Spending so much time thinking about sustainability means we at Simbi Foundation are more alert to greenwashing than Greta Thunberg is to a climate-change denier. In this post, find out how businesses are joining the conscious consumerism trend, and what makes Simbi Foundation a sustainability-first nonprofit.

…we value sustainability. Sustainability is important to us. Sustainable practices are at the core of everything we do. We’re proud to be a sustainable organization. Sustainability is a pillar of our workflow. We’re ensuring sustainable practices for generations to come…

It feels as if green companies and eco-friendly brands have been rising like our sea levels—creeping up on us inch by inch—until suddenly we’re swimming in green marketing. In 2020, practically every storefront is announcing sustainable credentials, setting themselves apart through commitments to combat social and environmental issues.

With so many claims to eco-consciousness being touted before our eyes, it’s difficult not to feel a degree of green fatigue, and look for a darkened (and preferably differently coloured) room to lie down in. But while you’re there, try not to think too hard about how valid many of these green claims actually are. As most of us are all-too-aware, there remains a messy relationship between corporate sustainability, brand story building, and the reality of today’s sustainability issues.

Did this paper straw really just save a turtle? How are turtles doing anyway? Will I now forever associate straws with turtles?

Greenwashing — the use of vague environmentally-friendly claims in branding and advertising campaigns — often presents us with sustainable solutions in the form of easy-to-remember stories, the details of which seem proven beyond doubt. Brands want to be known for making it possible to interact with them and buy their products in new, more sustainable—and shareable—ways.

In business-speak, this is about finding an intersection between opportunities to do social good and do well in terms of corporate KPIs like profit and consumer reach.

Source: Harvard Business School Online, What Does Sustainability Mean in Business?

There’s no doubt it’s better for us to choose the more sustainable option whenever we can, and companies should be celebrated whenever they take meaningful steps towards sustainability. But it’s also important to wonder if the habits of individual consumers can actually aggregate to make a sizeable impact. In other words, we need to consider the possibility that the size of the overlap in the Venn diagram above is, in reality, pretty small.

“Companies rarely do something drastic like eliminate straws unless they’re forced to, or it somehow benefits them. Starbucks likes to be the “good guy” in big coffee…but first, prove that these [new] lids are somehow better or easier to recycle than the straws, and then we’ll talk.”

(Brenna Houck, How Banning Plastic Straws Became 2018’s Biggest Cause).

If these sorts of questions are floating around your head while you’re waiting in line or clicking through an eCommerce checkout, chances are that a brand’s marketing and communications are falling short of providing sufficient information to back up any sustainability claims. According to some skeptics, the idea of a truly sustainable business is itself a piece of marketing fiction, with business interests more often than not in conflict with the interests of people and the planet.

Worst of all, a lack of clear information can make you question whether brands are just smoke screening — telling you what they think you want to hear and doing the minimum to justify their sustainable label.

“Unlike Organic, for instance, which comes with a certification process for producers of food and other agricultural products, as overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sustainability-centric terminology comes with no such government-mandated guidelines.”

(TFL, The Problem with “Sustainability”? It Doesn’t Really Mean Anything).

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So to help you sort (insert recycling pun here…) the true sustainability champions from the green pretenders, here’s a list of what companies really mean when say they’re sustainable (from worse to better).

‘We are sustainable.’ Just trust us!

This is the organization that likes to say they’re green, but never really says why, or how they act sustainably. Buzzwords and keywords are flying at you from all directions, each one harder to pin down than the last. Red flags are often terms such as ‘sustainably sourced’, ‘eco-conscious’, ‘thoughtful’, or ‘with care’.

Clothing brand H&M fell foul of this sustainability faux pas with their Conscious Collection — a range of clothing that was marketed as being made with higher green credentials than other H&M products, without information about sourcing, process, or what in particular about the product makes it more sustainable. The brand was investigated by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for its misleading claims.

The air quotes ‘sustainable’ gesture

Better than simply shouting sustainable, is taking a positive step towards a more sustainable workflow. These organizations have a policy, commitment or aspect of their operations that’s specifically intended to promote sustainability.

Unfortunately, more effort has been focused on developing a catchy or customer-friendly policy than effecting truly sustainable action. Take the paper straw debate above, or the vegan and plant-based menus on offer at this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars awards ceremonies. These changes seem like a step forward for sustainability, and have been implemented on company-wide and even national levels — but it remains unclear how effective they actually are at reducing waste or emissions. Compare those vegan menus, for example, with the fact that the average film is estimated to produce 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions, as much as running 108 cars for a year…

Or, how about consumer brands such as TOMS, the shoe company that offers a one sold, one donated policy when it comes to providing their products for in-need communities. (TOMS is but one example; there are many of these ‘one-for-one’ based businesses.) By incorporating charitable costs into their profit margins — so the story goes — they’re able to make an enticing sustainability marketing pitch alongside making a real difference.

Yet again, however, the evidence is debatable. As this review of TOM’s donation model describes, these organizations might do more to listen to specific social needs, rather than providing an indirect solution to a problem that may, in reality, be much wider. In other words, giving away shoes is an amazing gesture, but how can we prove that it’s the most efficient and effective way of making a difference?

“Making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want. It just makes us feel better about ourselves. Case in point: A 2012 study compared footprints of “green” consumers who try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers. And they found no meaningful difference between the two.”

(Alden Wicker, Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world)

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An evidence-based sustainable business model

Much higher up the ladder of the sustainable best practices is an entire business model developed in line with sustainable principles. While good intentions can be found throughout this list, these organizations are more committed to environmental aims than most, and they know how to convert that commitment into a sustainable, ethical business model.

Today, there are so many genuinely awesome sustainable brands out there, with their own unique and inventive ways of aligning business goals with social and environmental outcomes, that it’s impossible to summarise them under one category.

From emission-offset activewear made from recycled plastic and coffee, to visualizations that help us better appreciate the need for sustainability itself, technology and continually increasing levels of awareness are leading to some pretty interesting innovations.

Here are a couple of great resources if you’re on the lookout for sustainable organizations:

Mutually beneficial partnerships that utilize local economies, promote autonomy, and last forever

At Simbi Foundation, we take sustainability so seriously that we don’t even really like to use the word! Knowing the questionable connotations that the term ‘sustainable development’ has collected over recent years, we prefer to leave labels behind, and focus on the specific actions and policies that help to make our projects as resilient and future-facing as possible.

For example, the solar panels powering our BrightBox classrooms and other school facilities are not only carbon emission-free, but provide a real needs-based solution for energy production in the local area. BrightBox users can harness solar to run a device charging station, capable of charging up to 100+ devices simultaneously.

From this, sustainable possibilities continue to span outwards. Not only does the charging station provide a possible revenue source, but it also acts as a foundation for additional projects. CRADLE is a female health-focused charity that provides Village Health Teamworkers (VHTs) with Vital Sign Alert devices — technology that allows community members to monitor maternal health. CRADLE use the BrightBox’s solar power to keep their VSA’s running, while the BrightBox’s EduTech facilities make the perfect training hub for VHTs.

A BrightBox in action

Another sustainable aspect of our approach to community development is our commitment to training for autonomy. Simbi Foundation uses a five-year training model, where the aim is to work ourselves out of the door within that time frame, leaving our projects in the hands of a capable team of community members for years to come.

The major reason we’re able to achieve this kind of long term autonomy is by firmly rooting projects in existing needs and goals, right from the beginning. By operating both within and for local economies, it becomes far easier to align interventions with everyday life in the area. For example, we construct and fit-out BrightBoxes so that local workers and tradespeople are able to provide their existing services for maintenance and to support upkeep.

For us at The Waking School Bus, it’s this kind of embedded planning and futureproofing that makes for true sustainability. We believe that our projects live up to those aims, but at the same time, we’re also the first to acknowledge that there’s always room to do more, and to do better.

So, if you’re the kind of person that can see through brand greenwashing, or pinpoint the value in sustainable policies, let’s talk! Take a look at our website for the full rundown on our projects and mission, and how you could become part of our ever-growing team of innovators.



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