Debunking the common myths we hear about sustainability, circularity and purpose
Why is it that so few companies are prepared to realize the benefits of sustainability?
It’s not like this is still up for debate. The data is unequivocal: companies that embrace sustainability and purpose make more money, are more efficient, are better places to work, they have more loyal customers and employees and they pivot and recover faster in economic downturns.
And yet, a good chunk of my time, every single day, is spent debunking myths around sustainability, educating business leaders to what has been known and understood for decades and facing down a whole bunch of objections to doing something that we all know works.
I get it. Change is challenging and it doesn’t happen overnight. It took decades to get people to start wearing seatbelts. But if the pandemic has done nothing else, it has made it glaringly obvious that for a host of social, environmental, economic and (finally) political reasons, we can no longer continue to see food and drink as something which has little value and where it is acceptable to throw away 40% of everything we produce.
So, I thought I would create a new blog feature called Mythbusters.
Every couple of months or so my team and I will get around the virtual whiteboard and list out some of the common myths and excuses we hear about sustainability, circularity and purpose. And then in this column I will do my best to debunk them and then offer some solutions to counter them.
You know, when I’m writing, I do like to think about who I’m writing to. I know that these posts are read by thousands of people and for that I am both humbled and deeply grateful. And I also know that many of you who write back complain that you are tasked with driving the sustainability agenda in your company but that you don’t have a seat around the board table and that your leadership isn’t fully bought in, so your work often feels like pushing heavy rocks uphill all the time. So, these Mythbuster posts are for you, in the hope that it might make a modest contribution to lessening the weight of those rocks.
Let’s kick this off with the first Myth...
"We don’t believe sustainability can be a real business driver for us"
There’s no way you can look at the data and then say there’s no business case for sustainability, so what is really behind this excuse that we still hear a lot? Well, in my experience, it’s fear. Fear of changing something. Fear of needing to think differently about their business. Fear of breaking something that is working today. And this is often because the thing that is working is so fragile - maybe the margins are so thin, or the market is so challenging - that the leadership feels that it would be risking the whole future of the company if it started changing anything.
How we debunk this myth…
The first thing is to recognize that the fear is real, and it’s probably well founded. As we all know, 95% of our food and beverage manufacturing and processing industry here in Canada is made up of SMEs, often led by entrepreneur founders. It only takes being burnt once to make an entrepreneur really wary of doing anything that might rock an already wobbly boat. They may have decades of their lives invested into the company and the fear that they could lose all that investment and legacy is a powerful motivating force.
Debunking this myth is about addressing that fear head on and creating a safe space where the company can begin to explore what sustainability and purpose means without exposing their core business to any perceived additional risk.
In the past we have done this identifying quick wins from areas like food loss and waste prevention, or operational efficiencies, so they can see the immediate financial benefits. Then we begin to explore creating new, more sustainable products and brands and put them into new channels so as to not impinge on the company’s traditional markets or positioning.
And as we go through these baby steps, these risk averse companies begin to realize that sustainability is actually a risk management tool, and the answer to so many of the challenges they were facing in the first place.
“We don’t have any waste”
Sorry. You do.
You may not realize it, but I promise you that I have only been into two facilities in twenty years where there was no waste!
So, you do have waste in your facility. True, it might not be visible. It might be small amounts of product going down the drain when you clean out your machinery, but those small amounts add up. We worked with a beverage company recently who at the end of each shift had just a small amount of product left in the lines because of the type of pumping system they used. This product was flushed down the drain, and because it was only a couple of litres each time, no-one ever thought anything of it. But when we ran the numbers, it turned out they were wasting $20,000 worth of product each year. As a small business it didn’t take them long to realize how important this was to their bottom line!
There is always more you can be doing, through operational efficiencies, food and water waste prevention measures, energy reduction strategies and so on to improve the environmental sustainability in your plant.
So why do so many firms pretend they don’t have any waste? Well, in my experience it comes down to the attitude of leadership.
“Don’t tell my boss how much food waste you have just found in my plant” is something that we hear far too often from plant managers when we present the results of our food loss and waste prevention assessments. This happens because of an organizational culture where the fear of failure is more prevalent than the drive to improve. It happens because the staff are focused on self-preservation rather than working together to achieve a common goal. And it happens because leadership has failed to create a purpose that inspires and aligns the whole team. And you end up with a situation where people would rather hide the reality and protect their jobs.
What’s the answer? Well, as you’ve heard me say many, many times before – the answer is purpose. Create a purpose for your company. Show leadership’s authentic commitment to that purpose. Help teams understand how they are part of realizing that purpose. And watch the culture begin to slowly evolve.
“Sustainability is a cost centre, not a profit centre”
About a decade or so ago, we used to play a game when we went out to visit companies. We would try and find the office of the person in charge of sustainability. And then we would bet on the number of steps between that person’s office and the washroom.
I know. It was a little immature, but almost without fail, the sustainability manager or officer or whatever they were called could be found squatting in a small (often broom-cupboard-esque) office at the end of a long and dark corridor close to the washrooms. Why? Because that’s how important they were to the company.
Thankfully, things have changed somewhat, but we still regularly hear the refrain that sustainability is a cost centre, not a profit centre – one that companies put up because they feel they have to, because they need to keep their customers happy, not because they want to or see the benefit of embedding it into all parts of the business.
And we find that the people who are tasked with delivering the sustainability mandate in these types of companies typically have a tough time. They are under-resourced, not provided with the support they need from colleagues and lacking the real leadership necessary to move the needle.
Debunking this myth comes down to demonstrating the economic case for sustainability to the leadership across all parts of the business (finance, sales, marketing, human resources – not just operations). How much can be saved through sustainably-driven efficiencies? How much extra market share can we gain through telling a better story, one that is grounded in how we take care of people and planet as well as profit? Where are the quick wins? These are the questions to answer that demonstrates touch points across all parts of the business, and the case to prepare.
And I want to recognize how challenging this can be, because this tends to subsist in larger companies, where organizational and cultural change can take longer and where there is more inertia to overcome.
Ultimately, sustainability and purpose don’t work as siloes. And without leadership being willing to see at least the economic argument, it makes it challenging for those passionate advocates of a better way who are still stuck in the broom cupboard next to the washroom.
“I don’t have time for this right now, I’m too busy with COVID”
Every so often I feel the need to vent in these columns. And this is one of those times.
COVID is being used as a get out of jail free card by far too many companies, today. Even companies who invested the time, energy and money to create sustainability targets pre-COVID. And it needs to stop.
I get it – plants are busy, everyone is working flat out, margins are tight, we are living in a period of unprecedented change.
But if we think for a minute that we have the luxury of focusing all our energies on the crisis at hand while the planet is literally going up in flames around us then we are sorely mistaken.
Can we really be so naïve as to not see that the reason we are in the middle of this chaos in the first place is because of the way that we have operated a take-make-dispose culture in all our industries, and especially in our industry, for the last century? Sure, it might not be fair that we get to be the ones to sort it out, but that’s just what is. It’s time to deal with it.
We need more and stronger commitments on environmental and social impact and practices, not to be pausing them and saying that “hey, it doesn’t really matter if we don’t hit our GHG targets, COVID happened”.
So, how do I suggest debunking this one?
By pointing to their competitors who have chosen to double down on their commitments, rather than walking away from them. And by reminding anyone who wants to play their get out of jail free card of a recent statistic from Edelman: 71% of Canadians are clear that brands who are seen to be placing profit over people during the pandemic will lose their trust forever.
That’s the first installment of Mythbusters. I hope you’ve found it an engaging and interesting read – and here’s the call to action. What are the myths or challenges that you face most as you move the purpose and sustainability agenda forward in your company? Whatever your role in the industry I would love to hear from you. Drop me an email and we will add your myths to the list for the next Mythbusters!
PS - On October 7th, our team at Provision is helping the National Zero Waste Council with their Eastern Canada virtual National Forum from 1:00-3:30pm. During this session you can expect a lot more of the myths around the apex between Food Loss + Waste and Packaging to debunked. Help us move the conversation forward by registering HERE today.
President & CEO
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