Is it Sustainability or Social Capitalism?

Alan L. Johnson

I attended Product Stewardship 2018 in Washington, D.C. and found much of the discussion centered around Sustainability. There were many product stewards that spoke about how their businesses were trying to be more sustainable and in general about the goal of sustainable businesses and products.

What struck me as interesting was the conflict between a non service-based business's goals of selling more product to more people. Without the product somehow being recycled in a service loop it would seem to me that this is not sustainability but social capitalism.

Let's think about this for a second, if we need more resources to build more products for more people then how do we make this sustainable? Sure we could mine or harvest resources in a more sustainable way, but the linear process itself is not sustainable.

For this reason, it is interesting to ask are we simply becoming more social capitalists? By this I mean are companies now judged by consumers to a higher standard where they need to make greener products no matter if it is sustainable or not due to social backlash? Is this becoming a green wash event in our society?

There are many examples of making ingredients or products greener where the products become less sustainable. For example recently there has been an outrage around plastic straws. Some have moved to ban them, but others are calling for paper substitutes. If one truly looks at the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of this substitution there are inevitably unintended consequences which could drive up sustainability costs.

While circular economic principles can change this paradigm, we are still seeing companies rush to make greener products for their customers that are not truly more sustainable.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. Do you buy products based on sustainability factors? Why or why not?

Q2. How do you think companies should think about sustainability and new products?

Q3. Do you think fundamentally that there is a movement towards social capitalism?

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