Coming soon: Sustainability Mythbusters

The relevance and popularity of sustainability has increased tremendously over the last decade. Where sustainability was initially a topic for a small group of change makers, now it’s firmly in the mainstream. Unfortunately, that also means a large number of myths have sprung up around it.

Sustainability feels good

Although businesses have long focused on financial indicators to analyze performance, we now know that environmental and social aspects are also important. Businesses can’t be successful in a society that is failing. Many business owners acknowledge that they have a responsibility in that respect and want to take that responsibility by doing good.

Once this decision is taken, human nature takes over: it’s expected from us to do good, and doing good makes us feel good. We feel happier and more purposeful for having made a kind decision, even if we haven’t sufficiently considered the consequences.

A lack of experience-based intuition

Sustainability is driven by the feeling that we need to change the way we do business; that we want to take environmental and social aspects into account. For most of us, that’s a new field. Financial and operational performance has been monitored to steer improvements for decades. We grew up with that, and based on that experience, most people have a gut feeling, an intuition, for what works best and what does not.

When it comes to environmental and social issues, we don’t have the experience to develop an accurate intuition. It’s all kind of new, so we often base our intuition on what others are saying, not on real-world experience. Still, when developing a sustainability strategy or when setting sustainability goals, we often follow our myth-based intuition anyway. As shown in the graph below, most sustainability goals currently in place in businesses do not have a strong scientific basis.

Image source: The Leaders and Laggards of Sustainability Goals by Jeff Gowdy and

Fact-based or intuition-driven?

To take sustainability seriously and to allow it to mature, it’s essential to set realistic targets. If we don’t do that, then we’re not giving sustainability a fair chance: setting targets that are not achievable will only disappoint people. Targets need to be relevant as well as realistic. And what’s relevant can be completely different for different companies.

Relevance is determined by the impacts a company has: a professional services firm, for instance, might have a relatively low impact on climate change, but a huge impact on social issues.

Even if we know what’s relevant and realistic, we might make the wrong decision. Some activities might have counterintuitive effects. For example, decreasing the weight of a product by using aluminum instead of steel sounds like a great idea. However, aluminum is very energy-intensive to produce. Changing the material might cause the energy requirements to increase drastically, resulting in a higher environmental impact instead of a lower one.

“Right now, sustainability is a dangerous cocktail: people feel good when they make a sustainable change, even if they lack the experience and insights to make the right decisions.”

Destroying the myths and following the facts

Making the decision to do good makes us feel good. But making the right decisions – decisions that actually change things for the better – feels even better. To help you make these right decisions, we will start publishing a series of articles in which we discuss common sustainability myths. We will use our experience and knowledge and, of course, LCA to determine if these myths are true or not. LCA can be a powerful myth-buster allowing you to make evidence-based decisions instead of solely following your intuition.

We have some myths in mind already, but if you are struggling with a certain sustainability myth, we’d love to hear about it. Let’s shed some light on the world of sustainability together.

Eric Mieras

Managing Director

Sustainability is all about impact. Positive impact makes you meaningful. But first you have to know where you are making an impact and where you can create shared value. That’s where PRé comes in. Pinpointing your impact is an essential starting point for taking joint action with people and organisations in your ecosystem. The combination of sustainability and social business can make a real change in the way we do business.

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