“Sustainable doesn’t mean anything”
As I was speaking with Helen, visionary founder of Clean Filter, a company paving the way in compostable packaging, she shared something with me that struck a chord. ‘Sustainable doesn’t mean anything’. It’s a sentiment she heard from friends. And how true it rang. I feel it too. It feels ubiquitous. But what lies beneath this shared sentiment? Is it a product of a culture of ‘doomerism’ or does it run deeper, etched into the structures of our economy? Let’s pen some thoughts.
In this journal entry let’s talk about why a lot of us feel that sustainability means nothing, some of the causing forces, and what truly sustainable would look like.
Why we feel this way
Sustainable is a word that rolls off our tongues with ease yet lacks a universal meaning that binds us together. For some, it’s incrementalist solutions like recycled plastics (PCR) or opting for liquified natural gas (LNG), attempting to balance cost and resource conservation. But to others, it’s profound transformation in our products, production processes, and financial incentives. Instead of PCR or LNG, think of refillable, refined products sets with thoughtful sourcing or renewable energy sources and nuclear. The question is, which path do we choose? I’m inclined to the latter, but for most folks it’s a blurry mess.
To add to our confusion, we constantly hear of “sustainability” but rarely see its impacts materialize in our daily experiences. Large brands owned by even larger conglomerates dominate our ad spaces and social content. They rave about all their programs and new materials, then we see those same companies caught in lies.
The Shein factory scandal is a good example, also hilarious to watch from the outside. Shein took a group of influencers to China to post positive content about their warehouses and production practices. They were taken to staged warehouses and raved about the positive aspects of the working environment and production process. Their content was met with anger, justly so. Shein is well known for its clothing waste, harmful chemicals, crappy working conditions, and generally unsustainable business model.
For something closer to the Beauty space we can look at Skkn – Kim Kardashian’s brand. The brand claimed to be ‘grounded in an ethos of sustainability’ and featured a refill technology. The refills were a solid pack being replaced into a wholly unnecessary outer layer. Not so much a refill as just more waste.
Now I’m not saying there aren’t real brands and initiatives fighting the good fight. There are, for sure, but they don’t have pockets nearly as deep as the dominant conglomerates (L’Oreal, Unilever, Estee Lauder etc.). The industry is incredibly concentrated, L’Oreal for example has 20.2% of Western Europe Market Share. The 20th largest producer only produces 5.5% of L’Oreal’s revenue. This follows a broader trend of increased consolidation across all industries. So, when we hear about sustainability through popular channels, 99% of the time it’s from the perspective of publicly owned large brands.
Industry concentration still leaves a question of why don’t these large conglomerates invest in truly “sustainable” solutions? It would help them avoid greenwashing claims, provide great marketing material, and do some true good. Well, because it isn’t in their direct interest to drive this change.
The causing forces
Why don’t large conglomerates change? The key reasons are (1) they have no need to, and (2) they are unable to invest in sustainable ventures if it interferes with their “bottom line”.
- They have no need to.
Concentration is a 100-year trend, going back to 1915(1). Causing effects could be broadly economies of scale pre 1970s where you saw manufacturing and mining concentration rise fastest, and post 1970s retail, wholesale, and services were transformed by modern information technology. Regardless of the driving forces, industries are dominated by fewer and fewer mega-corporations.
Another wrinkle to add is that a lot of publicly owned firms have the same asset management giants like BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street as their dominant shareholders. This is a different form of monopoly that harms competition, consumers, and the economy.
Increased industry concentration means less competition. Less competition means you can hold your customers easier and there is less incentive to try something risky. Instead of creating disruptive new products or production models that may be more sustainable or introduce new material value, large brands are happy to hold their base and push more consumption. Consumption is pushed through larger product sets. These product sets are justified by marketing new “needs”.
- It can’t interfere with the “bottom line”
Any publicly owned firm has a primary objective of increasing its stock price. The directors must optimize for this, or they will be replaced by another executive selected by the board.
To increase share price, you can:
A. Increase Revenue (current or growth projections)
Revenue can be increased through new consumption, or innovation that takes from your competition.
B. Decrease Cost
Cost ‘efficiencies’ are found through cheaper labour or supply chains, or innovations that materially reduce cost of production or management.
C. Buyback Stock
A buyback is when a company uses its free cash to purchase its own shares on the open market. This reduces the shares available and increases the price of the remaining shares. It’s an artificial inflation of the stock’s value and was illegal prior to 1982.
Out of these three levers available, firms often pursue greater consumption, cheaper labour, cheaper supply chains, and buybacks.
I ask myself, if I were at the helm of one of these conglomerates – a LVMH, a Kering, a Coty – would I chart a different course? I'd like to think so, but I know reality is far less forgiving. If I dared to overhaul the business model for true sustainability – reducing product lines, investing in sustainable supply chains, subbing plastics for reusable alternatives, and offering greater wages to workers – I'd be booted out by the board of directors without a second thought. Alas, it's not about the individuals or the specific companies; it's the very financial structures that shackle their decision-making.
What would sustainable look like
Sustainable means fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising future generations – balancing economic growth, environmental care, and social well being.
I think where we get caught up is in the balance of current vs. future.
I’d argue that we prioritize the ‘current’ way in advance of the ‘future’. It’s visible in the increased rates of natural disasters, insurance companies pulling out of Florida and California entirely, and our political elites admitting that we are not on track to meet Paris accord climate goals. (2, 3, 4)
Are all things right in the current? Absolutely not. But the issue is in the distribution, not the gross production. America itself wastes 130 billion meals worth approximately $408 billion. We have enough, but a few have an abundance while many don’t have enough. (5)
So, if you’re with me so far that we don’t necessarily need to product more, but be smarter about it, what would that look like in the beauty industry? Here are some thoughts:
- Distributed competition. A vibrant and healthy class of small and middle-sized private brands that both disrupt and inspire larger players in the industry. A private structure would enable mindful investments for the future, transcending mere shareholder returns, and venturing into riskier yet more rewarding sustainable solutions. But to make this vision a reality, we need anti-trust policies that reign in their ability of massive conglomerates to purchase any competitors growing to become a threat.
- Reworked financial structures in the public sphere. While the private sector holds potential, it cannot single-handedly carry the torch of sustainable change. Repealing stock buybacks and championing sustainable investment is required. Investment stimulus will require government involvement. We cannot rely solely on competition and culture to sway the course; we need swift transformation.
- Creative solution design. Let's focus in on the beauty industry as solutions look dramatically different depending on the space. I’ve got three main points where I think beauty should do better:
A. Curated product sets. Instead of pushing out new products each quarter, more emphasis should be placed into the “why” behind each formulation. Each formulation should have a clear idea of what new good it is bringing into the market. If that rigor were brought to each brand, I think we would lose a lot of unneeded excesses.
B. Thoughtful ingredient sourcing. From the production process to the distance travelled to the manufacturer, greater visibility and emphasis should be given to the individual ingredients beyond just what they are. As VERITAO grows I want to give an idea of which farm each ingredient was sourced from, how they produce, and how their production methods are going to get more effective and sustainable over time.
C. Packaging innovations. When I spoke with Helen of Clean Filter Packaging, here were some of her thoughts:
“I think that "lightweighting" (minimizing the amount of packaging material used) is both sustainable and economically sound. I also love seeing stepwise wins, for example Heinz redoing their ketchup caps to make them fully recyclable. Is this still plastic? Yes, so it's not ideal. But it's way better than before, where the cap would need separation and either end up in the landfill or render the entire bottle unrecyclable. I think it's important to design products that do not place the onus of complex separation, sorting & cleaning on the consumer. It's way too confusing!”
Her points resonate with me – we should celebrate the small wins for big corporations, as a small difference made on high volume products can have a big impact. With a more long-term focus, I believe the industry must move towards a buy & refill model. The aesthetic quality of the original packaging must be cherished; we ought to be driven to preserve these bottles. Refills must be lightweight and effortlessly disposed of, embracing compostable or biodegradable solutions. Additionally, local refill options at retailers can cut shipping energy consumption.
At the end of the day, I’m unsure what the best route forward is. But, there are a few questions that should be asked with greater consistency amongst all of us:
What does a truly sustainable future look like, from products to neighbourhoods to energy, and what’s our next real step forward?
If we worry that large companies can influence politics, how do we improve democratic institutions to compensate?
How do we balance the needs of today with the needs of our children best? What role does distribution with today's production play?
What else am I missing? What do you think I've got wrong? What have I got right? As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
6. Solarpunk images from Daniel Clark, https://www.artstation.com/daniel_clarke