Friday, April 12, 2013

"Make it look like a duck..." or The Falsification of Sustainability

Courtesy of Brimen Cartoons

I have seen this all too often. A company makes an announcement of their intentions, the speech littered with hot button words,and in the end we all feel warm and fuzzy at the progress we're promised.  Fast forward some time and it seems more often than not these companies show little progress, if not backwards movement. Was it a lie? Was it a misunderstanding? How is it that we have been talking about Sustainability for over a decade, with so little to show for it?  I believe it all boils down to what we choose to call Sustainable, more specifically, how many things we call Sustainable.  Slapping labels on things, doesn't actually make them so.  

Do you remember this? It launched about a month ago on BP's YouTube Channel.  Filled with color and a whirlwind of movements, leaving one dizzy, but hopeful.  I mean, did you see those infographics?? All in all it looked amazing; US to be top producer of renewals, reduction of foreign oil dependance by 70%, coal and oil to drop by over 15% each, 99% energy produced locally and so much more!

Yet last week BP announced it would be dropping $3.1 Billion in U.S. Wind Power.  This on top of their announcement in December that it would be exiting the Solar business as well. So it's officially wiping it's hands clean of both wind and solar, leaving little to be desired in it's "Renewable" category; just Biofuels research, and Ethanol refinement.

“BP has decided to market for sale our U.S. wind energy business as part of a continuing effort to become a more focused oil and gas company and re-position the company for sustainable growth into the future,” said Mark Salt, a company spokesman. “For BP, this effort represents another example of prudent and active management of our global portfolio, consistent with our pledge to unlock more value for shareholders.” -Quote from's article.
From The Bad Days will End, whom has much to say on the topic

Did y'all catch that? "More focused oil and gas company...for sustainable unlock more value for shareholders."  They are actually giving up their renewable energy efforts to pursue more profitable fossil fuels...and they have the gall to call it SUSTAINABLE!

This all together doesn't surprise me, though I wish I could say I could see it coming.  However the abandonment of their own goals, within the same month of making them, is pretty confusing.  To me, this doesn't make sense.  What DOES make sense (at least under Occam's Razor) is the idea that BP never even meant to be sustainable, but rather felt that if they called it that, the people would approve.  Which they did; however the people cannot deny such a blatant 180 degree flip.  Increased production from a limited supply is the exact opposite of the definition of Sustainability.

Let's take a moment to refresh.

The application of the term "Sustainable" without regard, didn't start with BP.  In fact it's such a rampant problem among the food industry, that consumer advocacy groups have called for an Audit into labels claiming food sustainability.  It seems these days you can't walk ten feet in any supermarket without running into a product with a "Fair Trade," "Organic," or "Locally Produced" sticker.  Labels of "green" and "sustainable" are littered all over our culture.  Often, we have to just take it at face value.  These stickers are here to let us know that someone else did the research and you can be assured that your consumerism is less dangerous than others'.
From Small Farmers. Big Change.

The problem with these labels though, is often they are placed by the producers themselves, giving little credibility to them, assuming that we won't look into it.  Like every coffee shop in New York, claiming that they have "N.Y's #1 cup of coffee!" this should desensitize us, making us skeptical. Yet without the basis of opinion, i.e. tasting the gross coffee, we can only assume that the labor conditions, payment, and productions of these products are what they say they are.  

Too often we want our products to shine.  Companies know that certain hot words can inspire people to purchase them, so their use of the word is fairly liberal.  While they may take comfort in the fact that their practices aren't entirely terrible, the term "Sustainable" means something very specific, which isn't "NOT bad."

Being "NOT bad" doesn't make you "Good." 

So what can BP and others do to increase consumer trust?

Well besides trying to wrap bad practices in pretty wrapping paper, there's a little concept I enjoy called "Trust A vs Trust B." Described here in The Future of Transparency from, which is put simply:

Trust A happens when a company communicates that it’s going to do something, and it then does it. We can think of it as accounting-related trust. Being accountable, accounting for what happened, and accounting for what might happen going forward.

Trust B is trust like sustainability reporting has never seen it before. It’s about
genuine benefit for all concerned that brings about a deeper, almost faith-based trust. It’s about being trustworthy not because a company consistently tells the truth, but because the truth is actually good and on track to be even better.

Actions ALWAYS speak louder than words.

Currently BP is attempting to get Trust A, but is failing since it's not really holding up to what it promised.  Really what they should be going for is Trust B.  If they really feel that by diving right back into their oil bath they are going to be creating a better future, then they need to prove that it actually will.  Only the results can truly win back the Populus's faith in them, and what they define as "Sustainable."  

As I mentioned last week, Portland was going to hold a conference to define what it means to be "Sustainable."  This is directly influenced by how many things are being called sustainable.  However by using the concept of Trust B, it's a definition not worth arguing over.  

Sustainability is defined by its Ability to Sustain.  If it does, it IS-
if not, then it's nothing more than a Turkey in a Duck's suit.

-Written by Ian Salamanca,
Chief Editor of A Sustainable Future

What do YOU think, is there some truth in BP's goal of Sustainable Oil? Do you feel Trust A is better?  Leave a comment below and be sure to follow us for future discussion!

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