The wider picture on sustainability

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability

Everyone is talking about sustainability these days, but jumping on this wagon without considering the broader implications can lead to trouble.

Attend any industry event these days and the buzz word is sustainability. The enormous fanfare this movement is generating has largely been driven by an increasingly environmentally aware consumer who wants to buy products with a reduced environmental footprint.

Put simply, companies that manage to wave the sustainability flag in a convincing manner gain an enormous amount of kudos.

But behind all the hype there are many pitfalls, with environmental groups and consumers waiting at every opportunity to pick holes in any green or sustainable claims that cannot be 100 percent substantiated.

Many of the leading natural and organic cosmetic and personal care players, including Aveda, Burt’s Bees and Tom of Maine have provided good examples of how to do it effectively.

Natural players have made a success out of sustainable claims

The success in marketing these brands on the basis of sustainability claims has helped to grow them from tiny niche players into brands that can today be picked up at almost any mass market retailer.

Likewise, the fact that such brands have been acquired by some of the biggest global players in the personal care industry has also helped many sustainable manufacturing principles permeate aspects of every day business operations.

Although the biggest consumer goods company in the world, Procter & Gamble, has been conspicuous in its absence from the natural and organic arena, two years ago it introduced an initiative to reduce its carbon footprint and produce greener products.

The big corporations call this initiative Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It gained momentum in the 80s and 90s, but with the advent of global warming and resulting environmental awareness, CSR its now in the front line of any viable corporate business model.

How easy is it to make sustainable claims?

In the grand scheme of things it sounds like a fairly simple trend to tap into, particularly as some of the biggest names in the business can be seen to carry it off without even having the brands to front such an initiative.

The solution may be just to source a couple of sustainably produced ingredients, reduce emissions in one manufacturing process, use recyclable packaging materials and the job is done. You can lay claim to sustainable credentials.

But these days the reality is infinitely more complicated than this. Indeed, any businesses trying to make these claims can only now do so once all the homework is done.

Awareness about sustainability is so acute that sugar-coating simply will not work. Environmental organizations and consumers alike want the full carbon footprint break down.

This means that every pot of anti-aging face cream, every bar of soap or shampoo will eventually come under the closest of scrutiny.

Beware of tough scrutiny

Invariably such scrutiny will touch every aspect of the supply chain, starting with the sourcing of the ingredients, moving to the manufacturing of the formulation, the packaging and all aspects of the logistics, including transportation.

This means that whereas sourcing sustainable natural ingredients from rain forests in the Amazon may win some points, such claims may well be shot down for the increased carbon footprint created by having to export the ingredient all the way to, for example, Europe.

Likewise, in the eternal search to source packaging with much-favored recyclable characteristics, sourcing an eco-friendly material from a company in China might also draw criticism if that product ends up on retail shelves in New York.

One potential solution to this problem might be environmental labeling, an initiative that could create a clear industry standard to work towards while also forming guidelines for eco-conscious consumers to follow.

The French government wants to make a number of environmental labeling requirements law by 2011, an initiative that could ultimately pave the way to clearly defining a product’s carbon footprint.

In the meantime, companies have to be acutely aware that they are drawing attention to themselves by making sustainable claims. But equally, the spotlight might not prove to be so welcome if the claims do not stand up to the test.

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