Why Sustainability Failed to Sustain True Meaning for the Food Industry

In recent years, numerous corporations in the food industry have released sustainability plans for their organizations and general business practices. These plans help promote their business and generate new customers, but does the promise of sustainability hold any true merit?

In a day and age when McDonald’s can market itself as a sustainable business, it is easy to wonder what sustainability truly means and how food organizations follow through on sustainable promises.

Environmental Connotations, Economic Benefits

According to the Center for Retail Compliance, 40 percent of Americans want corporations to give back to their communities and are willing to pay up to 20 percent more for “environmentally sound” products. These social trends have driven many organizations to craft sustainability initiatives to help broaden their customer bases. Organizations use sustainability to appear more responsible and socially conscious and, as a result, generate more profit. Highlighting their good work makes people feel that by supporting the company, they are also contributing to society and sustainability.

One Sustainable Item Does not an Entire Business Make

Many organizations have picked one section of their business or products to promote as sustainable. Highlighting these token sustainability efforts makes the company appear responsible and progressive, but in reality, their actions are not integrated throughout their entire organization.

Starbucks recently banned all plastic straws from their production. This single gesture has given them a sustainable reputation, but they still use single-use plastics for the majority of their products. People frequent their establishments and give them their business, likely believing they are doing more good than they truly are.

Image via Cosmopolitan

Sustainability Does not Necessarily Mean the Environment

Some companies are jumping onto the sustainability movement in sectors other than just environmentalism. These organizations may mention their sustainability but might actually mean financial or social sustainability instead of environmental. These efforts can confuse consumers into thinking that by supporting this company, they are contributing to environmental sustainability efforts when they are not.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Lack of Regulation

Sustainability has many definitions from a wide variety of sources, such as the Cambridge Dictionary and the EPA. It means something that can be maintained a certain rate and it can also pertain to environmental actions and accountability. Both of these definitions can apply to corporate and organizational sustainability efforts, but there is no single governing entity to determine what actions are sustainable and to what degree they need to be enacted to be helpful.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides information about sustainability, but their efforts do not regulate other organization’s sustainable actions. This inconsistency between each organization’s definition of sustainability has allowed for confusion about the increasing number of sustainability campaigns. What the EPA considers sustainable may not be enough for organic farmers and may be too conscious for large-scale factory farms.

Planning is not Acting

Accountability is another problem with sustainability. Organizations like Starbucks and McDonald’s have announced plans to make their business practices more sustainable, but those actions have not yet been enacted. Organizations can garner a sustainable reputation and more customers before actually making any changes, but, without follow-through, the concept of sustainability becomes meaningless in the corporate sector. If companies can draw customers with just the promise of sustainability, then what force will make sure they actually follow through on their promises?

To learn more about sustainability efforts worldwide, visit the website for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

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