On the Edge of Mainstreaming Sustainability

My close friend and I were arguing yesterday over what work environments and organizations I should strive to work for if I want to stay in the sustainable development field and make a significant difference. My friend A argued that the obvious choices–the World Banks, Oxfams, WWFs, World Resources Institutes, and DfIDs of the world–are not influential enough. They’re too bureaucratic (read: risk-averse and increasingly unused) or too reliant on outside funding (read: risk-averse and unsustainable). Instead, he argued, I should look toward smaller, more nimble organizations that are financially self-sustainable, do more interesting work, and create their own value.

I found one such place today: the Sustainable Food Lab. Its mission is to “clean up” agricultural supply chains; it partners with big businesses like Costco, funders like DfID, and NGOs like Oxfam to come up with sustainable solutions, though many of these currently appear to be on a small scale relative to the size of the market and even the corporations themselves.

I also came across a letter by its director, Hal Hamilton, about how sustainably-minded change by big businesses is not enough: he argues that collaboration between businesses (the private sector), government (the public sector) and NGOs (and it must be all three) is essential for getting past the many perverse incentives to sustainability (like needing to keep a company’s market share by sourcing with the cheapest, most harmful methods possible). In particular, Hamilton seems to imply that government action is especially lacking (such as in the case of Indonesia and palm oil expansion leading to expansive deforestation, despite companies that buy palm oil trying to be more sustainable).

He also included a great quote by his colleague, Adam Kahane:

Change from the top down doesn’t work, and change from the bottom up doesn’t add up.

It was refreshing to hear a realistic perspective on the approaches commonly taken by NGOs to mainstream sustainability and social change, though I’m slightly skeptical of how financially sustainable and transparent their own organization (the Lab) is, based on the lack of annual reports and other systematic reporting. I was also glad to see that the directors acknowledged that partnerships between NGOs and corporations can only go so far, and I’m eager to see what next steps the Lab will propose to push the frontier of what’s feasible, both for the agribusiness industry and business in general.

Companies only make changes that are cost neutral or that gain consumer support. They cannot add costs, in isolation, that make them less competitive… Some of the costs of sustainability require co-investment by other sectors.

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About Development_Tango

Every nation's refugee. But more specifically, an open-minded French- and Russian-speaking former Moldovan-Ukrainian jumping between New York and California. Who hugs trees but tries to be logical about it. And wants to heal this broken planet by helping others help themselves.

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