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Sustainability: A Complex Issue That’s Not Fading Away

Sustainability: A Complex Issue That’s Not Fading Away

Can sustainability be sustained?

That’s a question that must be applied in some way to any change that appears to signal the beginning of a new trend or method. The answer to the question spells the difference between squandering time and money on an ephemeral fashion, or failing to make a timely move and missing out on a growth opportunity. Examples of the difference between long-term and short-term occurrences abound. Many manufacturers now wish they had never heard of the Atkins diet, nor responded with big product rollouts, since it proved to be a fleeting trend. Currently, decisions must be made about RFID, trans fats, 100-calorie packaging, further calorie disclosures, children-centric advertising and much more. If any of these points of publicity are harbingers of long-term trends, first movers will have a significant advantage over those who do nothing. The reverse will pertain if these prove to be fleeting phenomena.

That brings us to sustainability, which may be the biggest opportunity, or hazard, that has poked its head up in quite a while. Sustainability, which might be described as initiatives intended to reduce reliance on methods and processes that deplete irreplaceable resources, was the object of a study issued recently by the Grocery Manufacturer Association/Food Products Association. At the moment, it seems that a number of gathering forces will propel business interests toward adopting sustainable methods, and that such forces will remain for some time. Of course, there’s no way to prove that, and if that’s not the case, sustainability will be a vast money pit. Let’s take a further look to see which of these outcomes is most likely. (The study was described in news articles written for the SN issues of June 18 and July 2 by managing editor Christina Veiders.)

We’ll start with a closer look at the study itself, the title of which sets out the matter at hand: “Sustainability: Balancing Opportunity and Risk in the Consumer Products Industry.” The study notes that the concept of sustainability isn’t completely new, but that it’s rising to the top of consumers’ minds because of increased publicity, transparency afforded by Internet communications, regulatory activity and scientific findings.

Moreover, the importance of sustainability is not only growing, but it poses “troubling challenges” to the industry, the report goes on, because of the present reliance on scarce resources such as water, oil and corn.

The report concludes that sustainability poses further challenges because it’s too early to determine the exact future direction it will take, yet the time to consider what to do is at hand: “Consumer businesses need to consider how their core business models, priorities and focus areas will change, despite uncertainties about how sustainability will evolve.”

It also concludes that “sustainability is not a fad and is unlike any business issue consumer businesses have encountered in the past [because] sustainability is all encompassing — involving shareholders, consumers, retailers, suppliers, employees, NGOs, state and federal governments, and scientific and academic institutions.”

The likely answer to our question, then, is that sustainability is not a statement of fashion, and so isn’t going away soon. Moreover, it’s far more complex than previous issues because it will necessitate forging many external relationships.