A few weeks ago I facilitated the Sustainability Forum hosted by WestRock. It brought together the sustainability leaders for several?of the world’s largest retailers.
The agenda’s objective was to connect these leaders and allow them to share best practices and learn from each other.
Sustainability as an environmental science is defined as not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting ecological balance.
I learned that sustainability takes Gumption.
Gumption is classically defined as either common sense or initiative.
My additional, third meaning, of Gumption is: personal responsibility – personal responsibility for the way you think, act, and interact.
The biggest, personal take-away story from the Forum involves the relationship these retailers have with their landlords – the mall operators. The operators recognize that the public wants to do the right thing for the environment. Their food courts all have recycling bins. The public understands that plastic, glass, and other recyclables all go into separate bins. It’s good PR as the public feels good about itself and ‘we’re all doing the right thing for mother earth’.
The back-of-the-house operations is another matter. Retailers produce mountains of trash. Their goods all are delivered in plastic wrappers and cardboard boxes. The majority of that waste is going directly to the landfills.
The back-end waste is dramatically greater than the front-end waste. So the small amount of front-end waste is being done for show while the much greater amount of back-end waste is being ignored. Penny wise and pound foolish.
The retailers all agree that something different needs to be done. The current practice is non-sustainable. The current practice is not the right thing to do. The current practice is not common sense.
The sustainability challenge is combining doing right with the profit motive.
Everyone agrees that recycling is the right thing to do. Reducing the amount of waste that goes to the landfill is a great idea. Diverting anything that can be recycled from the landfill to a recycling center is the goal.
The profit motive isn’t currently strong enough for each individual group within the system.
The mall operators simply need to remove the waste – it’s currently cheaper to send waste to the landfill than to the various recycling centers.
The individual retailers can’t economically (singularly) choose to recycle.
The suppliers of shipping and display products can produce more ecologically friendly products but at a cost – and the cost makes no sense if these products are only going to end up in a landfill anyway.
Here is the good news.
- There is a growing number of retailers and suppliers committed to solving this problem.
- They realize the problem will only be solved by all coming together. While they may be competitors in selling their goods – they need to be partners to solve the sustainability challenge.
- Suppliers of materials are working with retailers to provide ecologically friendly products at economically, competitive pricing.
- NGOs are creating frameworks and providing education to move the sustainability movement forward.
- Mall operators will join the sustainability party and provide on-site recycling services when it no longer makes business sense to continue to fill landfills.
- Entrepreneurs will create new processes and businesses to take the waste products, convert them to new products, and make a profit.
Sixty to seventy-five years ago people threw trash out the window of their automobiles… thinking is was OK.
Two or three decades ago we threw all trash into the same container… thinking is was OK.
Today the public is aware of the need to recycle and happily deposits plastic, glass, and other recyclables in designated containers… thinking it’s necessary
Tomorrow the business model will dictate that all business’ recycle. It will make ecological, economic and business/PR sense… it will be part of the cost of doing business.
Sustainability takes Gumption.
Sustainability is common sense. It’s the right thing to do.
Sustainability takes initiative. It’s already starting.
Sustainability is going to take personal and corporate responsibility by all people and all parties involved.
Sustainability takes Gumption.