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Too Hard to Measure or to Face? How Sustainability Lost Its Focus on Equity and Can Get it Back

I love to cook. In fact, I am THE cook in the house.

If you too are the cook, you know the pressure to deliver timely, tasty nutrition. There is nothing like a great frying pan that cooks evenly, has a sturdy handle and is non-stick. On many nights, a splash of olive oil, frying a protein then adding some vegetables is about as fancy as it gets. Change the sauce or the spices. Have it with rice or noodles--if you remember to prepare them. Thanks to non-stick technology like Teflon, cooking is made easier; clean-up is a breeze.

I have the scientists and engineers at DuPont to thank for quickening our meals--and indirectly for creating our modern conception of what sustainability is and is not. It's a critical story that can help us understand why sustainability became (inaccurately) synonymous with the environmentalism and environmental stewardship.

As you will see, sustainability was never just about the environment--and never will be.

As a Mom, I'm Mad as Hell

The result of a laboratory accident by DuPont chemist Roy Plunket in 1938, the super nonstick material later trademarked "Teflon" was an inert fluorocarbon—Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Soon after, DuPont proudly called it “the most slippery material in existence." The Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia became the Teflon hub and in 1948 DuPont was producing 2 million pounds a year.

Fast forward to the 1980s.

In 1984, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a DuPont employee entered Mason's Village Market, a small general store, and filled a jug with tap water. Other employees were doing the same in eight other stores in the Ohio River Valley. This wasn't to satisfy anyone's thirst. This was part of a clandestine testing program DuPont had started to look for ammonium perfluorooctanoate--also known as C8. This industrial compound was used in the manufacturing of that magic substance that speeds along dinners: Teflon.

C8 was found in the water at Mason's Market. In fact, it was found all over. However, the community wasn't made aware until 2002--18 years later.

"I was feeding that to my child, to my babies," Melinda McDowell told a reporter from the Fayetteville Observer "As a mom, I'm mad as hell."

A DuPont-commissioned study in 2004 would find that 1.7 million pounds of C8 had been released into the water, air and soil around its Washington Works facility from 1951 to 2003. An independent panel of scientists studied the health effects of 70,000 people in the valley and determined a strong causal link between C8 and kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis and other diseases.

The World's First Chief Sustainability Officer

In 2004, in response to the C8 public relations crisis, DuPont would create the first Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) position in the United States and hire Linda Fisher, former deputy administrator at the EPA, to fill the role. Fisher was tremendously qualified and had spent her career protecting the environment and creating regulations to safeguard air, water and soil.

So what would her focus on "sustainability" be at DuPont?

Would she remain with the original meaning from the 1983 Brundtland Commission that created the concept of "sustainable development"? Would she align her work with the Commission's 900 days of listening sessions on five continents, endless hours of meetings, reviewing reports and then writing their own milestone Our Common Future published in 1987 which would conclude, in part:

"These links between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation formed a major theme in our analysis and recommendations. What is needed now is a new era of economic growth - growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable." (Our Common Future)

Given sustainability's obvious emphasis on people, poverty and health, surely Fisher would quickly address the C8 situation and the people and community's affected by it.

The Safe Harbor of Sustainability

It would appear that DuPont would steer sustainability into safer waters.

In a 2009 Fortune article, Fisher reflects on her experience at DuPont:

"In 1970, although 'sustainability"'wasn't really used then, we focused on environmental compliance. By the '80s we were focusing on footprint reduction; in the '90s, energy efficiency. We were ahead of a lot of companies looking at greenhouse gas reduction. More recently, in the past several years, we've been looking at what our products can do to improve society's impact on the environment."

They reduced sustainability to environment, environment to efficiency. Under Fisher's leadership and many other CSOs, sustainable development, meant to transform business, would instead itself be transformed. It would lose its original power and complexity, like a box of crayons with all the colors scattered only to leave black and white. Over time, people would forget the number of original colors, the original meaning of sustainable development. Each successive Chief Sustainability Officer would echo the first. The playbook that emerged worked to gain acceptance: sustainability is about efficiency, focus on global environmental issues not local, and do enough public relations and reporting to satisfy regulators and skeptical consumers.


Sustainable development, meant to transform business, would instead itself be transformed


For sure, CSOs had tough jobs to do most have been understaffed and under-appreciated. The decision to focus on efficiency is as understandable as it is unfortunate. If one is trying to prove themselves, achieve credibility for a foreign concept, often the most palatable approach is to make it not just fit the current system but to propel it forward.

But then 2020 happened. Record fire season. Record hurricane season. And the exposed deep wounds of racial injustice expressed in health disparities and police brutalities. Isn't sustainability about creating an economic system where such environmental human tragedies are avoided? Or is it really just about efficient light bulbs.

For decades, many had been pointing to the narrow view of sustainability, that it was about much more than resource efficiency, that it was about what the Brundtland Commission had said: an integrated view of equitable development that protects and restores the environment.

“Pre Covid-19, environmental issues garnered much of the attention of sustainable investors," says Vikram Gandhi, a professor at Harvard Business School. But with the arrival of the global pandemic and widespread protests calling for social justice, “the focus is shifting to social issues such as how companies treat their employees, suppliers and customers.” (Wall Street Journal)

The Well-Worn Script: Social Impact is Too Hard to Measure

The focus of sustainability is shifting to social issues. I would suggest the focus should have never been anywhere else. This is a return to basics, not an ascendance to higher principles.

But I get it. Professor Gandhi is pointing to something that has burdened sustainability for many years.

In sustainability circles, podcasts, books, workshops, conferences, there is a well-worn script, usually spoken as if it is too obvious to even mention. It goes something like this:

"Environmental impact is straight-forward. We can count kilowatt-hours saved, greenhouse gases reduced or effluent avoided. Save resources and save money, right? Usually all present nod in agreement--whether they do or not.

But social impact...woh...what does it really mean, you know? It means something different to everyone. It's so hard to define! And how do you measure it?"

Exasperated, all involved seemed to agree that "social impact" is just too amorphous and hard to measure. Someone evokes the axiom that "you can only manage what you can measure" and just like that, social impact is sidelined. For our own job security, is what they don't want to say out loud, we better just stick with making the easy business case for resource efficiency--and assume the environment and therefore people will actually benefit.

This convenient half-truth has defined "sustainable" business practice for three decades. Sustainability has become a stunt double of environmental stewardship. It comes onto the scene to reduce costs while simultaneously absorbing the impact of public scrutiny and growing consumer skepticism. Then 2020 comes. In 2020, the realities of environmental degradation and social/economic inequality came crashing together on the public stage in rare fashion. The bill for our half-hearted commitment to a half-understood sustainability has come due.


Sustainability is about the environment, but it was never only about the environment.


Let me be clear: it is true that resource efficiency can reduce operating costs and potentially reduce pollution, material waste and the use of natural resources. It is true that these efficiencies can be measured using existing facility management systems. It is true that such metrics can be understood by internal managers and outside investors. This makes efficiency investments from relamping to replacing HVAC systems a good starting point for many companies doubtful of any move beyond strict legal compliance. It is not true that this activity is sustainability. Perhaps it is a part of sustainability, like drinking more water is a part of a healthy lifestyle. But true sustainability, like true personal wellness, requires much, much more.

The sustainability-is-environment-is-efficiency script has defined the boundaries of what IS and what IS NOT "sustainability". Over time, it has created a sustainability that has justified underinvestment in "social impact" labelling such things as hard to measure, hard to define and perhaps even too "political". Maybe corporate foundations can work on such issues but they are not "material" to daily operations.

Hard to Measure or Hard to Face?

But is "social impact" hard to measure or hard to face? I would argue the turn away from sustainability's original meaning which began in earnest with Linda Fisher at DuPont, has more to do with convenience and comfort than measurement.

Talking about reducing a facility's water consumption is much easier than talking about reducing water contamination in people's homes. Increasing investments in clean energy is a much more comfortable topic than increasing representation of Black and Brown people in executive positions. Talk of the environment doesn't make us look at power, privilege, and historic disparities between groups of people based on gender, race, ethnicity and ability. In fact, talk of the environment just makes more money and increases the reputation of those in power: who in the U.S. are mostly white and mostly male.

Hard to measure? I don't think so. Sociologists, social workers, psychologists, economists, public health experts, and more have developed a wide range of robust measures of human and public health, education, and prosperity for decades.

Hard to make the business case? I don't think so. A wide range of researchers, organizations and studies have proven that eliminating labor rights abuses in one's supply chain, protecting employees health and safety and working to diversify the board all can reduce risk, costs, improve innovation, and increase overall financial performance.

In short, sustainability-is-environment-is-efficiency has narrowed our view, left us ill-equipped to address the full range of social impacts of the firm, and therefore many in sustainability were caught flat-footed by 2020. Of course, the racial reckoning that marched down the streets was joined by many people working in sustainability--but that was too late. It's not a question of one's heart being in the right place. It's a question of the money and investment being in the right place. And most sustainability officers and programs have hugely underinvested in, and not partnered enough with efforts to advance, social and economic equity. This goes against the very meaning of sustainability.

How do we find our way back to what sustainability is really about?

It's hard to know you are lost if you don't know where you are supposed to be. The GPS on your phone or in your car can't direct you without a destination. If we don't tell it where we want to be, it can't help us. So where are we supposed to be working in sustainability? Two answers to that question: one historical and one contemporary.

Looking Back: When Sustainability Was Born

"Sustainability" began as the phrase "sustainable development" popularized by Our Common Future, the 1987 Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, later referred to as the Brundtland Commission as it was headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway.

The purpose of the Commission, launched in 1983, was to "propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development to the year 2000 and beyond". So indeed, sustainable development is about the environment. We can see that quite clearly. But notice it is also about "development" and the Commission was asked to consider "interrelationships between people, resources, environment and development."

If one reads Our Common Future, one sees clearly that caring for people is required in order to care for the environment--and caring the environment is vital to care for people. Let me share three excerpts from the Commission's report that illustrate this point:

  • "Poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems. It is therefore futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality."

  • "These links between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation formed a major theme in our analysis and recommendations. What is needed now is a new era of economic growth - growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable."

  • "This inequality is the planet's main 'environmental' problem; it is also its main 'development' problem."

Looking Forward: Global Goals for People and Planet

The 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals contain 17 goals of which only three deal directly with the environment. The rest are about equitable human development including access to education, healthcare, and clean water.

Moreover, nearly every international sustainability reporting and certification framework from GRI to CDP to B-Corp to UN Global Compact to SASB and more include social factors often in greater or at least equal proportion to environmental ones.

So sustainability is about the environment, but it was never only about the environment.

Conclusion - Going Back to the Original Recipe

When DuPont created the first Chief Sustainability Officer position, it needed to define the role as any effective organization must do for any position. However, in defining a role, they also were part of a movement among corporations to define the boundaries of sustainability itself. It would have been better, and more accurate, to call them Chief Environmental Officers. By connecting their work with the term sustainability, they redefined it.

The emerging definition allowed focus to be placed conveniently on global issues like climate change, instead of local issues like C8 polluting the drinking water of Melinda McDowell, her children and her community; on efficiency and waste reduction projects that comfortably save money, instead of the uncomfortable lack of diversity on the board of directors or the C-suite.

Sometimes when cooking something I have made many times, I find it helps to go back to the original recipe. Usually I know it by heart and don't need to measure anything. I have made pancakes every Saturday morning for over 20 years. I have rarely used a recipe--or a measuring spoon (thanks Mom!). When I do look up a recipe, I always pick up something valuable: refinements, new twists on the original, and a check on my proportions.

This is what I recommend for those working in sustainability--or aspiring to do so. Go back to the original recipe of sustainability. You will find all the ingredients you need, and that the world needs. You will see that sustainability is about people and equity, sustainability is about environmental protection, and sustainability is about peace, security and human development. It's a complex recipe. It's not pancakes, that's for sure.

We owe a lot to the pioneering Chief Sustainability Officers like Linda Fisher. Especially in a male-dominated firm like DuPont, the path was surely not easy. DuPont has set the table for a more just, sustainable business model and been widely recognized for its work in diversity and environmental conservation. In many ways, their work now is reflective of the original definition of sustainability with safety, innovation, equity and environmental protection woven together.

Despite the progress, most still see green when they think of sustainability. They think of recycling and windmills and efficient lightbulbs. Sustainability is so much more. We need to return to the original recipe.

When we do, there is no telling what we will be able to cook up.

Drafts of this essay were started in 2020 and finished now in honor of Black History month.

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