Sustainability: A long journey home
Minal Mistry, Senior Manager of Sustainability Solutions, GreenBlue -- Packaging Digest, 3/1/2013 12:38:00 PM
When was the last time you heard sustainability referred to as a journey? Chances are not too long ago as it is quite a common statement. Often we may not give the word journey its due meaning. A journey requires some level of commitment and purpose from the sojourner to see it through. The Chinese proverb by Laozi states, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step denotes that an action and intent is required."
Late in 2011, I hit the road on a journey to spread the word about sustainability in packaging through the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's Essentials of Sustainable Packaging course. Now after teaching in six countries, I've found that the interpretation and commitment to sustainability practices are quite varied across the globe. To an extent, I found that these interpretations are devoid of the holistic intent built into the concept of sustainability.
In the simplest sense, the concept of sustainability asks us to expand our perception of the world to include not just the act of creating value, but to also include the oft-unvalued implications associated therein. For package and product development this means looking both backwards and forwards at the same time. From the point of view of the product, looking back reveals all the interconnected steps that came together to bring the packaged product to market, and we can look forward to the economic value generated. In sustainability terms this could be translated by quantifying, as best we can, the implications of the product creation journey on the environment and society—the upstream implications. Looking forward, sustainability asks us to consider our ability to continue to do similar activities into the future, with a requisite ask of changing our collective behaviors to keep the whole system functioning into the horizon.
Evidence from the Essentials of Sustainable Packaging classroom suggests that we are still quite early on the journey and have a long road ahead. The six countries I traveled to covered three continents and collectively represent significant global manufacturing and consumptive capacity. Each place has a slightly different take on what industrial sustainability entails, and what responsibilities need to be owned up to by each actor to someday arrive at the mythical sustainable destination.
What these countries have in common, however, is that their various interpretations of sustainability run along fairly narrow and predictable paths. Most efforts are focused on the singular activity of placing the packaged good on the market, either domestic or export. The comprehension of the interlinked downstream implications is uncommon. Similarly, there is little focus on looking forward to the concept of continuing similar activities in perpetuity. What remains is a solitary focus on producing and selling for today. The holistic vision of sustainability is lost or muddled in the effort to understand what makes for "green" or "sustainable."
Regardless of geography, evidence in the classroom suggests that people yearn for the answer to the question of which choices are more sustainable. For many, the answer is innovation, and hence the newest solutions are thought to be better and more sustainable. For example, bio-based materials are often viewed as a clear solution rather than just one piece of the puzzle. For others, it is a matter of compliance with the preset regulations by one's government, and going beyond compliance is outside the scope. Yet for others, the discussion of sustainability is deeply intellectual, and wrangling with the complexity of choices and outcomes is generally accepted, including the ethical dilemmas.
On the whole, sustainability is seen as being encompassed by a single indicator or attribute such as carbon impact or recyclability, respectively. The result is a narrow understanding of a holistic concept, leaving us on the proverbial doorstep with the journey waiting before us. Deep sustainability—that which induces systemic change—is illusory, in part due to the nature of our collective approach to the concept. Can we break the pattern of stepping in place and instead bound forward with intent and commitment to make headway along the thousand miles journey? We can, yet it will require a longer-term vision and, at times, us to abandon the comfort of the status quo to overcome the inertia.
Author Minal Mistry is senior manager of sustainability solutions at GreenBlue. The Essentials of Sustainable Packaging is a professional development course offered by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue. For additional information, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.
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