For most of this century the term sustainability was bandied around in an attempt to deliver the world a brighter future filled with organic produce, electric cars and renewable energy. And yet the word has all but disappeared from the vernacular.
Sustainability is dead
Every April 22 since 1970 we have celebrated Earth Day but we have little to show for it. The sustainable revolution has not arrived. The world is awash in cheap products made mostly of oil-derived plastic across nearly every category. They are used briefly then landfilled for 5+ centuries. With oil at $50 per barrel there is little to think this will end any time soon as the middle classes struggle in an economy still recovering from the GFC, despite stories to the contrary from mass media.
The GFC showed that the green movement was brittle, relying on a buoyant economy to survive. With the global downturn, the idea of making sustainable choices was put on hold as we all scrambled to get a job and make ends meet. Ask any Millennial and they will tell you that sustainable means expensive.
Sustainable products are indeed typically 10-15% more expensive than the regular alternative. Vale sustainability then.
It is often said that our words create our world. The end of the S word is not a reflection of us no longer wanting to make responsible choices. Rather it shows that Sustainability 1.0 (1970-2008) didn’t resonate with a sufficient number of people for it to take hold. Every piece of research shows that about 70% of any population reports considering making green choices. Yet, in the real world, sustainable products make up a tiny fraction of the overall markets.
The future of the green movement
Tesla is a fascinating example of a Sustainability 2.0 company. Starting with its name, CEO Elon Musk did not call the company Eco-car, Green-car, Sustaina-car—or Leaf as Nissan named its electric car. He named it after Nikola Tesla, an unsung hero of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was a prolific inventor and contributed to the discovery of electricity, radar, the transistor, wireless communication and the electric motor. Tesla was certainly not in the sustainability business and neither is the company that bears his name. The term sustainability doesn’t appear at all on Tesla’s website. The focus is on those things that appeal to the car-driving masses: performance, safety and styling. The fact that it uses no petrol is an after-thought.
Nissan’s sustainability-soaked Leaf has struggled to cope with Tesla’s ‘green but we’re not green’ approach. Nissan shipped 30,000** Leafs in 2014, 17,000 in 2015 and are down 39% in 2016 so far. Meanwhile Tesla has 370,000 deposits on their Model 3, a direct competitor of the Leaf at the same price point. Tesla has shown that by following its indirect approach, a growing group of consumers will get on board the green train without even knowing it.
Similarly, Dame Ellen Macarthur, the British round-the-world yachtswoman launched her foundation in 2010 to rethink how an economy can operate in a restorative way rather than the current linear way of Take, Make, Waste (Take resources from the planet, Make products, Waste by landfilling them). We live in a world of finite resources yet have an economic system that assumes they will always be available. Like Tesla, the Foundation doesn’t use the term sustainable. ‘Regenerative’, ‘restorative’ and ‘circular’ feature prominently—and the world is listening. The European Commission adopted a manifesto for a resource-efficient Europe with Macarthur being a key contributor. Large multinationals have joined the movement too, with the likes of Google, Unilever, Renault and Nike seeing the wisdom in this post-sustainable approach. They see that a regenerative approach is just as good for the planet as it is for the bottom line. Welcome Sustainability 2.0 (2016-).
*Author’s company is a Member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “Circular Economy 100”