Monday, July 30, 2012

Sustainability is like Teenage Sex...

A recent tweet I saw made me laugh: "Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everyone says they're doing it. Most aren't. And those that are, are doing it badly." But then I stopped laughing and did a bit of introspection on the darker side of my industry.

Sure, most businesses who are reporting on sustainability metrics try to make themselves look better than they are. Disclosure is rewarded more than performance and many companies include 'sustainability' as a core value, with little executive buy-in or understanding of what it means.

However in many cases, corporate sustainability is far more insidious than securing bragging rights; it is often a front for the corporations whose very existence is founded on extracting value from human and natural systems to give their existence a green sheen. The green sheen of pond scum on a dead river perhaps?

The other morning I read the proud claims that the first McDonalds restaurant had been certified with a bespoke Green Star rating in Australia. That's right folks, McDonalds. And they led with the tag line "Would you like sustainability with that?"

So, by sponsoring a bespoke green building tool, installing some efficient building services, a company can effectively erase in the minds of its customers, the fact that it nearly single-handedly shifted an entire agricultural industry towards intensive, beef-led agri-business (ok, there were other big players, but please forgive me for being dramatic).

The fast food behemoth appears to imagine that targeting the 'Topsoil Preservation' credit on a restaurant could undo countless millions of tons of topsoil destroyed by extractive agriculture. It's as though they believe that by increasing the fresh air rates in their restaurant they would counter the atmospheric impact of cleared forests for beef production – the very lungs of our planet.

The ecological and health impacts of the corporation are so huge – the fast-food-fueled obesity epidemic afflicting western cultures among others – yet our attention is focused on the small steps in restaurant design that green buildings offer them.

It's a bit like mining houses claiming 'sustainability' credentials for their green buildings (e.g. The 6 star Rio Tinto Tower in Brisbane)... Does including recycled steel in your building say anything about the strip-mined forests of conflict-ridden West Papua?

Or banks - will the superior economic performance of green buildings fill the hole left in the actual savings of real people when the bubble finally bursts for good, and the house of cards comes crashing down?

For many corporates, it is not just a case of green-washing - making themselves appear greener than they are - but rather Orwellian doublespeak. Peace is war, truth is lies, 'green' fast food is healthy (in the words of my wife) and extractive mining is the panacea to the development of our communities.

And it is not that green buildings are bad, quite the opposite. The built environment is a huge contributor to humanity's resource consumption - and addressing their impact through design is critical.

I'm glad McDonalds built a green restaurant and that they pioneered the use of bespoke Green Star tools, I'm glad that Rio Tinto have helped increase demand for green buildings. But I cannot stomach the self-congratulatory attitude as though these decisions of theirs outweigh their deeper, darker impacts.


  1. It was great to go through your post. Thanks for sharing here. Keep up the good work.

  2. Indeed, unfortunately for most money hungry corporations, I think they see "Green" as just another way to give their product a competitive edge. Thus, like any other marketing tactic, the bare minimum is done to get the desired effect. While it's not a step entirely in the wrong direction, the measurable effectiveness is probably on par with that of preaching abstinence to combat STDs in teenagers.

    I suspect consumers assume something “Green” actually has a tangible backing to the claim. Solutions? Stricter requirements for proclaiming you have a “Green” company/product? However, to have a meaningful impact they would need to be pretty darn strict indeed. Tough one.

    “Green” McDonalds? Hmmm, yeah, I also heard if you abstain for 30 sec before getting down and dirty then you’ll be right, mate.

  3. Thanks for this article, i read this blog from 2 weks.

  4. For first reading this idea that "sustainability is like teenage sex" is really ridiculous, but after deep thinking...