Sustainability. It sounds good, modern, well-meaning, the sort of thing New Labour might have come up with. But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about sustainability?
It’s hard to do the topic justice so briefly, but let’s start with what it isn’t. It isn’t simple. It isn’t recycling. It isn’t even getting rid of plastic bags. These may be elements of a sustainable approach but they can be unsustainably executed and end up giving ambiguous environmental results.
Take the ubiquity of the cotton canvas bag, widely adopted by independent shops as being more environmentally conscious than plastic. In fact, the most conservative estimates suggest that canvas bags have to be used at least 50 times to equal the overall environmental impact of a single, disposable plastic bag due to the costs of their production.
Other studies have estimated that this could be as high as 20,000 uses for organic cotton production, which is much more environmentally intensive than conventionally-farmed cotton due to the lower yields and even vaster water requirements.
The tote is a lesson in superficial sustainability. Sustainability is a complex concept that requires interrogation and thought.
Organisations such as B Lab have moved to a more holistic understanding with their B Corp certification, which considers the supply chain, working practices and corporate governance. This concept of sustainability is about treating your staff well, paying people on time for the work they do for you, and promoting and hiring fairly. It is, in many ways, common sense and good behaviour.
Using the B Corp framework to think about sustainability is helpful, and many independent retailers are probably more sustainable than they think. Whether the costs of becoming certified, which are based on a percentage of revenue, add up is for each business to decide individually.
Taking it further, sustainability is also, in a radical sense, deconsumption, not just damage limitation. It’s all very well to turn up at confession, do your penance and be on your way until next Sunday – to atone and pay your carbon tax. But the most sustainable thing is, simply, not to make things we don’t need.
If a Champagne house or whisky distillery really wanted to show its sustainable credentials, it would simply stop the arms race of luxury gift packaging. Similarly, people would be forced to bring their own pens to wine tastings to end the scourge of free disposable Biros that no one needs. Around 1.5 billion are disposed of each year in the US alone.
Deconsumption means buying less stuff and making fewer things, whether they’re in eco packaging or not. Real sustainability entails resistance to the consumption culture and ideologically opposes the tenets of global consumerism.
That’s especially tough to administer because much of the developing world now sees consumption as its right, as it ascends to post-industrial sophistication. It’s also a difficult thing to consider as a retailer, writing in a magazine called Drinks Retailing, but if we’re really going to get to grips with sustainability, we need to ask some difficult questions.
I’ll finish with a remarkable example of true sustainability in action. The Carthusian monks behind the production of the singular Green Chartreuse declared in 2021 that they would be reducing production and supply of the spirit. Why? Because they found themselves increasingly engaged in supply of a product that was incidental to their goals. They are now choosing to focus on their primary activity of prayer and solitary contemplation.
Amid all the noise about sustainability, that radically simple act offers more food for thought than most white papers.