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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.