Anne Johnson, Director

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
Is Sustainability Being Held Back by Ideas from the Past?


Bombarded by recent headlines, I have been reading lately about the Great Depression. I haven't found any solace for our current economic situation, but I did find some interesting insights related to the need for not only more sustainable materials but also more sustainable production systems.

At the turn of the century, the U.S. discovered it was “industrialized.” Manufacturing facilities produced immense quantities of materials, but there was a problem—these systems could produce more than thrifty-saving Americans could consume. A concerted effort was made to change this and is reflected in a 1907 quote by economist Simon Patten: “I tell my students to spend all they have and borrow more and spend that. It is foolish for persons to scrimp and save.” A similar advertising message is summarized by Depression Era historian Robert McElvaine, “Don't tighten our belts, loosen them—the more we spend, the more prosperous we will be.” From the vantage of 100 years and the largest economic decline since the Depression, it appears we took many of these lessons to heart.

In his essay, “What's Your Consumption Factor?” Jared Diamond notes that the developed world consumes at a rate about 32 times higher than an average person in the developing world. Consumption is one of our main cultural exports and our economic systems rely on it. Many developed societies are tapped out from a consumption perspective and recognize that globalization is the ticket for continued economic growth. Looking to emerging economies, we see growing middle classes that are quickly adopting our consumption practices. We are watching a modern consumer revolution even down to the Model T's modern corollary, Tata Motors $2,000 Nano.

I recently toured one of the world's largest paperboard mills. It was well managed, with impressive, environmental performance and more than 100 years old, it is a living testament to the legacy of the industrial revolution. A couple of things struck me. One was simply the scale of the operation, which was immense. The other was the inflexibility of the system. It won't be running bagasse any time soon.

We find ourselves straddling history as we depend on the production systems of the past but recognize the fundamental need for more sustainable materials and processes for the consumer demand of the future. We have not figured out how to do it yet and for good reason. To change, we have to overcome the inertia of the past and fundamentally shift our energy systems and perhaps the scale and magnitude of our production systems as well.

A recent Supply Chain Management Review article suggested there could be a reversal of globalization as energy prices climb. I am not certain that I would go that far, but if you remove cheap, abundant oil from our current globalization model, the economics of certain pieces start to fall apart. If you look at ecosystems in nature, they are limited by the energy, water, nutrients inputs within a region; as the availability of those resources changes the system adapts. Cheap, abundant oil has allowed us to develop systems that ignore these principles. As we experience the effects of dwindling resources and rising consumption, perhaps we should think about regionally adapted systems of production that look to regionally available resources on a scale that is commensurate with regional, not global demand.

About the Author(s)

Anne Johnson

Director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue ( For additional information, email [email protected].

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