Footprint trends: time for radical sustainability

The era of box-ticking measures is dead. Instead of placating shareholders, companies are tackling issues head-on, says Ramon Arratia.

The world order of corporate sustainability is changing – and changing fast. No longer are businesses content with their old stakeholder sedation strategies, appeasing potential critics with tick-box exercises, ratings-based league tables and sustainability reports. Now they’re looking towards radical campaigns that tackle social and environmental problems issue by issue, and which engage the public head-on.

The trend is especially noticeable in the food and retail sector, where the supermarket chain Iceland has been breaking in with disruptive campaigns on plastics and palm oil, and where Sainsbury’s has been stimulating debate on the desirability of switching to plant-based diets.

The lines are increasingly blurring between corporate and NGO campaigning, and sometimes it’s difficult to detect the difference between the two. So what’s happened and why?

For the past 20 years, since the widespread adoption of the triple-bottom-line accounting framework, sustainability has centred on defining boxes to tick, with a focus on process and policy. This has led to a proliferation of certifications and labels, covering anything from organic food and forest-friendly paper to free-range eggs and fair trade.

Although some of these exercises have brought forth benefits, they’ve also led to the development of a number of blind alleys, including dubious concepts such as “sustainable coal” and the concept of carbon neutrality. If we look at where we stand today compared with 20 years ago, it’s doubtful whether we’ve achieved much in the way of substantial progress as a result.

Against such a background of limited achievement, the level of expectation on sustainability is much higher today than it was 20 years ago. What we’ve come to know about the relentless progress of climate change has altered all that. Society now expects real change, and individuals themselves are more prepared to take action.

One area in which we can see this is in food. One in eight Brits are vegan or vegetarian, while another 21% say they are following a flexitarian diet; companies are having to respond quickly. That’s why we’re seeing more radical action and campaigning by businesses on that level.

Responding to such dramatic trends is not something that can be adequately left to sustainability wonks focused on ratings tables and public-affairs-led “narratives”. It requires new products to be brought to market that are radically different and which address a new desire for healthy plant-based diets, plastic-free packaging and so on.

In that sense, the new order is about market disruption and innovation – allowing the actual products to do the talking while providing what the consumer increasingly wants.

The inventor of the triple bottom line, John Elkington, recently declared that while his concept has been valuable in helping companies to rethink how they do business, it has not succeeded in serving as a catalyst for wholesale system transformation, which is what we need and was what he was hoping for. So let’s declare the era of box-ticking, business-as-usual sustainability dead. It’s time to pursue radical sustainability in the corporate sector.

Ramon Arratia is sustainability director of Ball Beverage Packaging Europe and “advocate for radical sustainability”.

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