What’s in a word? Everything. It holds memories, smells, assumptions, beliefs, colors, positions, ideas, right and wrong. A word is loaded; a single word can communicate entire worlds. What does the word ‘Sustainability’ communicate? What kind of world does it hold out as possible? To my mind, even ‘Photosynthesis’ sounds sexier. Who wants to sustain? Stay the same? Who wants to be regulated and or told how to live and what to believe, as if the word Sustainability holds the truth? Who wants a business that does great things for the planet, but fails financially, as is the reputation for good causes (and if they are unsound, it’s true, because that’s business law).
As for colors and smells, I conjure up splashes of mulch, recycling, and, patchouli. When passionate people talk about sustainability I smile with a glazed expression and actually have ‘left the premises’. As an outsider, I do not trust good causes and their ability to actually bring about change. So many come from the clouds and return there because they have no traction in the real world. It’s the old spinach metaphor: if it’s good for you, it tastes bad; if it’s about a good cause, especially saving the planet, it’s a green dream that asks business to shrink down to trade negotiations at the front flap of a yurt.
Yet here I am, actively standing in a hub of ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Sustainable Business’ in the tiny rural mountain town of Durango, Co, by co-creating/editing the ‘Live Creative Studio’ blog each month. Live Creative was founded by Claire Attkisson whose manifesto is “just start”—just start reading and educating yourself about sustainable innovation; just start talking about Sustainability.
Wait, let’s get back to this blog–and words. Sustainability has a word and image problem ; it doesn’t communicate possibility or innovation or creativity or design or infinity. For a world that craves excellence, this is a hard word to get behind. What does innovation in sustainability even look like? The more I “just start”, the more I use words like innovation, creativity, and return on investment to describe what’s possible within the world of Sustainable Business.
Yet, these hopeful words are not usually associated with sustainability for most of us on this blue green plant. To help solve this communication problem, some people have moved on to words like: ‘Green Economy’ (but that leaves out all of us great people) or ‘Living Economy’ (what?) or the ‘New’ or ‘Next Economy’ (maybe?) or the ‘Regenerative Economy’ (that’s more inspiring for sure!)
What is a Sustainable Business?
Simply put, my new understanding of Sustainable Business is this:
An organization of people who view the purpose of business as a driver and creator of prosperity for people, the planet, and the economy.
This definition reflects the “triple bottom” line backbone of sustainable business. A business cannot do good if it is no longer in business. And notice, this definition is not prescriptive; there is no sustainable business manual. However, there are sustainable business frameworks that help us expand our thinking and give us a structure to make decisions, such as: Biomimicry, The Natural Step, Cradle to Cradle, and more.
This is where language comes in again. These sustainability frameworks give us the conceptual tools to imagine new possibilities for business and new ways of thinking about manufacturing and a product’s end of life. Language allows us to communicate these concepts and begin to prototype them in the business world. In other words: We can’t evolve as a species with the same thinking that got us to where we are now (I paraphrase Einstein here). Sustainability points to a vision. It is not THE vision. We have had many visions in our evolution. That is why we have cars, computers, and yes, the sweater vest. We started out nomadic and that urge has funneled to our minds, where our imaginations and intelligence do the traveling.
In just a few months of blog writing about sustainability, I’m struck by these facts: Sustainable Business is not small and cute and just the luxury of people who can afford to spend $200 on a basket of organic food from a beautiful food salon (I love good healthy food, but how can we scale this for the masses?); it isn’t about hemp and bamboo sheets (although those are awesome, please keep making them!).
Sustainability isn’t exclusive and it isn’t about killing big business and taking the fun out of life in order to save it. In fact, what I’m learning is that businesses that don’t tackle sustainability (people, planet, profit) will be left behind by consumers (people) who will find a like business that does!
The more I “just read” or “just talk” about sustainable business the more I realize how powerful global commerce is to scaling change for the better. For example, have you heard of the “Cradle to Cradle” sustainable design framework? (I like this sustainability framework, as it gives us a visual that is key to our survival: the circle.) Cradle to Cradle follows nature’s principles of abundance and circular nutrient flows. If your eyes are glazing over, stop now and watch this short and fun video on Cradle to Cradle.
Live Creative Studio is working with Durango, Colorado based Zia Taqueria to help them move toward sustainable food to-go packaging. One of the companies being vetted is Be Green Packaging, which used the Cradle to Cradle Design Certification process to create food packaging products that are tree free, 100% compostable, and their manufacturing process recycles water, reuses general waste and scraps, and it’s “end of life” is a nutrient for the earth that generates healthy, fertile soil.
Circular or closed loop product design and manufacturing, such as this, has helped to evolve the language of sustainability into a global concept called the “Circular Economy”. Talk about the power of language and businesses role in scaling sustainability.
Marketing and Scaling Sustainability
Scaling sustainability is essential to solving our global crisis of poverty, environmental catastrophe, and a quickly changing climate that won’t be fit for life. It is critical for businesses of all sizes and shapes—from the small to global corporate giants—to embrace a sustainability framework (think: Cradle to Cradle, The Natural Step, or BCorp to name a few) and put their own stamp on the triple bottom line business model and start innovating around plastics, toxic product ingredients, air and water pollution, energy, waste, water, gender equity, and diversity and inclusion, to name a few.
If every business on the planet “just started” on the path of sustainability and inspired their employees through a shared purpose, the world would indeed be reborn in alignment with the operating principles that sustain life.
Marketing for Sustainable or Purpose Brands Requires Transparency and Accountability
Each company’s sustainability program will look different. Some companies start with a goal of zero waste, others the goal of 100% renewable energy, and still more, take a deep dive into sustainable packaging or diversity and inclusion and gender equity. For Example:
Starbucks: “Our aspiration is to become resource positive — storing more carbon than we emit, eliminating waste; and providing more clean, fresh water than we use.” Starbucks tested one of their strategies to get people to use reusable cups in the UK in 2018, and found that charging a 5-pence disposable cup fee — along with a 25-pence reusable cup incentive — pushed the rate of hot drinks served in reusable cups up from 2.2 percent to 5.8 percent. Starbucks has a long way to go to shrink its environmental footprint. The company’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions are roughly equivalent to the pollution from almost 14 coal-fired power plants — nearly on par with other giant corporations like Microsoft. Its annual waste adds up to more than two times the weight of the Empire State Building, and the water it uses could fill 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Setting ambitious goal is key to sustainability, but so is accountability.
Amazon: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says Amazon is committed to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years early. As part of the plan, Amazon has agreed to purchase 100,000 electric delivery vans from vehicle manufacturer Rivian Bezos expects 80% of Amazon’s energy use to come from renewable sources by 2024, before transitioning to zero emissions by 2030.
Svenskt Stål AB (Swedish Steel or SSAB), the Nordic steel giant’s sustainability goal is to use renewable hydrogen to produce fossil-free steel by 2026. Momentum is growing towards the decarbonization of one of the world’s most energy intensive industries. This is 10 years ahead of schedule. How have they done this? Sustainable thinking and innovation.
H&M has an entire ‘Conscious collection’ made from pineapple skins and orange rinds, plus a garment recycling program, allowing anyone to recycle any brand at their H&M stores.. And, they just hired their female sustainability director to run the entire company. The fashion industry weighs heavy on natural resources, which is one reason H&M Group has set up clear goals going ahead: “our mission is to only use recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.”
The Promise of the Sustainable or Purpose-Driven Business Path
One of the most exciting elements of sustainability is that it isn’t political (or it shouldn’t be). It’s not just for the “greens” to take up but for all businesses to profit while doing good for people and the planet. What a global foce that would be. When we see business as it is—at the center of scalable global sustainability, we will see a huge shift.
For example, what if we designed commerce for health as well as profit? Or designed toxic chemicals and pollution out of everyday products and manufacturing systems? What if we designed for clean water? What if we designed for equality? When we look at design in this way we begin to see that regulation is a “signal of poor design” (Think: William McDonough). What if we designed global commerce in such a way that it no longer required government regulation (just confirmation of health and wellness)?
This sounds lofty and it is, but so was the goal of going to the moon and we did that over 50 years ago (and our lives didn’t even depend on it!). We can do this. We must do this. Both survival and innovation are in our DNA. We are our own heroes, remember? New thinking and imagining is our path to get there.
The “truth” that sustainability is really pointing to is the transformation of our global economy. An economy based on reality (not a false illusion)—that our Earth’s resources are finite and that there is no such thing as “away” as in “throw that away” (burning garbage causes air, land, and water pollution and landfills are a terrible time capsule for humanity to leave behind for the future to uncover).
Nature is the model we can turn to now. Nature has survived for billions of years through both competition AND collaboration, resulting in incredible diversity and abundance, even within a finite system.
This discovery —that the world is finite, yet nature still thrives, is akin to discovering that humans are not the center of the universe or that the world is not flat, but round.
So, you see, sustainability is our new evolutionary “tool” or “technology”. It starts with language, talking, sharing, doing, and coming together and imagining a new world. Every great invention or revolution came from creating a conversation, a common language that evolves, just like the notion of Democracy or Equality or Feminism or Humanity.
Durango’s Sustainable Business Hub
So that’s what we’re doing. Live Creative Studio is creating a sustainable business hub in a tiny rural mountain town (Durango, Colorado) where businesses of all shapes and sizes can “just start” on the sustainability path by sharing and helping each other and therein becoming more inspired by possibilities and the return on their investment. There are already 20+ businesses in our community on the sustainability path. How many are in your community? Find them and support them. Create one. Join us and prove to the world that business is a powerful force for good. Talk about a force of nature.
Check out our video!
Live Creative Studio is a marketing + sustainability agency based in Durango, Colorado with global impact. We work with purpose brands and companies of all shapes and sizes interested in or already launched on the sustainability path. We are a full-service marketing and sustainability firm, offering branding and logo design, graphic design, web development, digital marketing, and sustainability strategy. Live Creative also offers a Lunch & Learn series—DIY marketing + sustainability pro tip classes on the last Thursday of the month at our Sustainable Business Hub, Studio 12 @ the Smiley Building in Durango, CO.