by Margot Conover, Fairtrade America, and Beth Porter, Green America
This blog post also appears on the Green Business Network's website.
Approaching sustainability holistically requires constant improvement.
Companies must embed progressive environmental and social values at all
levels of a business. Sustainability leaders like Patagonia, Equal Exchange,
and Ben & Jerry’s have all made strong commitments and they are also
the first to admit they have a long way to go.
study of 3,203 companies found that 53% of them had integrated
‘sustainability’ into their strategic planning. If that’s the case, why
doesn’t it feel like we’re any closer to solving climate change and other
It’s a big job, but as a business, your company has any number of
opportunities to address social and environmental challenges through
consistent expansion of your sustainability portfolio. It all comes back to
that holistic thinking. There is no end goal, only room to continue
improving our practices.
For consumer-packaged goods (CPG), this could mean a sourcing commitment
that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, eliminates pesticides or toxic
chemicals, and creates resource efficiencies in energy sourcing or
transportation. Extra credit if you deepen your impact by encouraging
suppliers to adopt similar tactics. On the people side, you can implement
sourcing policies that protect your value chain from reliance on slavery or
forced labor, ensure healthy and safe working conditions, and contribute to
inclusive sustainable livelihoods for the people making your products. You
can also make changes based on life cycle assessments, looking at what
happens to your products once they leave the warehouse. This can answer
questions like, how long your packaging takes to break down, what are the
environmental impacts of transportation and storage, and how it affects the
consumers or communities purchasing it.
And not to make things too difficult, but this all needs to be financially
viable, too. Instead of trying to do all of this at once, make a strong
start and continually improve over time.
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already made sustainability
commitments in your business (or at least considered it). But, like an
Olympic athlete unsatisfied with just one gold medal, you want to find and
fulfill your full sustainability potential. Fortunately, there are tools to
help you! We’ve compiled the following toolkits to help you look into your
product life cycle and think sustainable for both outside and inside!
Life Cycle Sustainability
Making your first sustainability commitment is a great start, but don’t
sell your organization short! Life Cycle Assessment/Accounting (LCA) offers
a way to take a “cradle-to-grave” approach for assessing value chains. It
begins with the gathering of raw materials from the earth and ends when all
materials return to the earth – somewhere in between are you and your
product. Many organizations start with a “cradle-to-gate” approach by
taking into account the raw materials and observe impacts through to the
finished product (think energy usage at the factory or greenhouse gas
emissions on your suppliers’ farms). “Cradle-to-cradle” takes it a step
further to ensure that a product or its packaging can be fully recycled or
Environmental Protection Agency’s
Life Cycle Assessment
are two tools that help businesses identify safer alternatives for
chemical usage and materials that are likely to produce the worst
environmental impact helping you identify the areas in greatest need of
software helps companies analyze packaging variables to optimize
design, source sustainably, and support recycling.
Cool Farm Tool
is an online biodiversity, water, and greenhouse gas calculator that’s
free for farmers!
True Cost Accounting
is focused on
food systems in the US
and UK and looks at market externalities often ignored by industry,
such as pesticide contamination of groundwater or greenhouse gas
emissions from cattle feedlots, and assigns dollar values to them.
Human Centered Design
is an innovative method to plan for change by taking into account the
needs of all users and stakeholders ensuring that all are on track with
your sustainability plan.
Packaging makes up roughly
of US municipal solid waste, the largest contributor of all product
sectors. To achieve a truly sustainable product, it’s not just what’s in a
product, but its packaging as well. There are plenty of options for
companies to choose from, but let’s lay out the 3 key traits to look for:
You’re not truly recycling until you’re using items made with recycled
content, whether glass, paper, plastic, or metal. You can create a
straight-forward purchasing policy for your company, requiring a minimum
percentage of recycled content in each product and its packaging.
You also need to make sure your packaging is recyclable, meaning
it can be disposed of in most municipal recycling programs. Choose less
complex packaging, so it can be easily sorted and strive for packaging made
with a single material. This area is key for food companies since much of
our packaging waste comes from food. Just because a product is grown to be
disposed of in our bellies doesn’t mean the packaging should be disposed of
in a landfill. Explore using labels like How2Recycle to help your
customer easily determine if and how the package or product can be
recycled. Even better, try reusable packaging! Consider a method like the
resurfacing practice of glass milk bottle deposit or reusable options for
retail, like RePack.
Third-party certified packaging lends credibility to your brand, but it’s
important to do your research. Make sure the certification is inline with
your goals. There are preferred certifications with strong standards. Let’s
use fiber as an example, particularly since the explosive growth of online
shopping has resulted in a deluge of corrugated cardboard.
Multiple comparison studies have shown that not all certifications are
equal. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification sets
performance-based requirements, whereas the Sustainable Forestry Initiative
and others (SFI) rely on process-based requirements, which lack specific
management outcomes. For example, when it comes to clear cutting, FSC has a
maximum allowance while SFI does not. FSC also requires engagement with
Indigenous Peoples and cooperation to protect significant sites as
specified by those communities; SFI only requires companies to submit a
written commitment to respect rights.
For fiber packaging,
you can learn more about FSC’s standards
and its certified producer companies.
For a list of fiber packaging companies and their various environmental
and social standards, you can search Canopy’s EcoPaper Database.
To determine the environmental impacts of your company’s current paper
use (and to see the improvements by increasing recycled content), try
the Environmental Paper Network’s easy to use Paper Calculator.
Make sure your labeling is in line with the
FTC’s Green Guides
standard, updated in 2012. This can help ensure you are using
transparent and honest labeling for your packaging and product
Look into the
Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s
measurable targets for best practices.
Developing a trusting relationship with your suppliers is a must for any
successful business, and imperative if you’re concerned with long-term
sustainability of your products. But, in a globalized world where even the
simplest supply chains can involve thousands of people, supply chain
assurance often only goes to the next step of the supply chain rather than
all the way through.
That’s where certifications can help connect you to sustainable supply
chains and share your story with consumers. Business consolidation has
resulted in powerful companies driving down the price of goods like coffee,
sugar and cocoa to completely unsustainable levels. Small-holder farmers in
Latin America, Africa and Asia Pacific, who often live in remote, isolated
regions, are left to the mercy of volatile market swings on Wall Street.
US-based farmers and farmworkers face similar issues resulting from a
constant price pressure down the supply chain. Certifications can assure
both you and your customer that the humans, animals, land, and local
ecosystem were treated with respect throughout your value chain.
Local sourcing also offers an option for you to invest in your own
community. Many supermarkets have cottoned onto the ‘buy local’ movement,
which offers a unique pathway to develop supply relationships within the
community. It can also be a great way to win that most-coveted of marketing
channels: word of mouth.
Nielsen’s 2016 Harris Poll
revealed that 80% of Americans – and a whopping 92% of American Millennials
– trust word of mouth recommendations, more than any other form of
marketing. Wouldn’t you love to get suppliers in the local community to
sing your praises?
In fact, many of the values espoused by the “buy local” movement and
organic farmers align with those that drive Fairtrade shoppers, such as:
- the desire to support small-scale family farming;
- the desire to support sustainable farming;
- the desire to avoid large corporate intermediaries;
- the desire to know who grew the food, a connectedness or transparency;
- the desire to buy directly, or at least more directly;
- and the wish that more of the purchase price would reach the farmer.
Ultimately, the local, organic and fair trade movements all share a similar
vision – getting consumers and companies to think, not just about what they
produce/purchase, but how it comes to us. Certifications and sustainable
sourcing programs offer ways to address LCA growth opportunities, by
guiding businesses in how to identify and alleviate the negative
externalities in their supply chains.
– Fairtrade’s rigorous standards drive more money and benefits to
farmers and workers, as well as support their communities, and protect
their local environment.
– Products carrying the USDA Organic label are produced without the use
of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, GMOs or
a host of other substances common in conventional agriculture.
Equitable Food Initiative
– This US-focused certification supports farmworkers in achieving fair
wages and safe working environments, and supports farm managers as they
implement environmental practices that protect the people who work for
them and their local ecosystem.
Animal Welfare Approved
– A label for meat and dairy products from farms raising animals to the
highest environmental and animal welfare standards.
Food Hub Directory
– Supermarket managers and small-scale CPG manufacturers can find local
suppliers more easily through this resource.
Be a Sustainability Hero
Big challenges require big solutions that include people from every level
of the supply chain, from the
growing coffee and cocoa, to the consumers
at breakfast. The tools we suggested are just a few of many approaches
driving sustainability to the next level.
Jane Franch, the Director of Quality Sourcing and Sustainability at Numi
Tea, reminds companies: “Be cautious in the pursuit of the perfect – it’s
likely that the exact solution you want is not available today. Be willing
to take a partial step and make incremental change.”
You have a unique opportunity to empower your consumers to live sustainably
and to influence your suppliers to transform their production systems from
destructive to regenerative
. Be bold in the pursuit of change! You have the power to make your company
the best version of itself and to lead the way toward a
If you still want more ideas, here are some more ways you can go above and
beyond, pushing sustainable to regenerative: