‘Trendy’ Sustainability, Corporate Accountability and How to Vote With Your Dollar

By ZOE APPELBAUM-SCHWARTZ | Contributing Writer

The Issue:

A major staple of our modern society, sustainable development has recently emerged as a national corporate trend. As corporate giants increasingly sport vague statements of “sustainable intent,” consumers effectively buy into their eco-friendly image—unwittingly contributing to businesses that aren’t quite what they say they are.

Now, if you’re like me (and 99% of modern consumers), you’re pretty guilty of this practice … and it’s no fault of yours. The bottom line is that effective marketing can be scarily successful in disguising corporate—allowing big businesses to gain eco-friendly repute without actually doing the work.

And, with the increasing inevitability and impact of global climate change, this corporate irreverence is no longer an option; in fact, according to a recent Climate Accountability Institute study, just 100 (primarily American) companies were independently responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

At this point, it’s the responsibility of both the consumer and the corporation to adopt sustainable practices and counteract the negative externalities of unsustainable corporate activity—even though this activism might not be easily implemented.

Ultimately, while a radically sustainable paradigm shift will likely be painful (and financially exhausting) for buyers and businesses, it is essential as a means of achieving a climate-friendly corporate world.

Does this Brand Deserve my Business?

The increasing “trendiness” of corporate sustainability has brought on quite a bit of dishonesty on the part of major businesses. As companies increasingly trick customers into falsely believing that they’re eco-friendly (a practice experts are calling “greenwashing”), consumers are unwittingly contributing to unsustainable practices.

In fact, 58% of consumers are willing to pay more for products from environmentally friendly companies (according to Aspiration)—though few are able to distinguish a sustainable company from a “greenwashed” one.

While this corporate dishonesty is rarely overt, there are a few distinct clues that will tell you whether or not your chosen brand is truly sustainable. By taking the time to review information about businesses you choose to patronise, you could effectively take part in a movement which discourages “buying in” to the eco-friendly facade.

1. Does it go beyond basic environmental/social standards?

A major way to determine whether or not your company is sustainable is by investigating whether or not it simply aims to meet the bare minimum of federal requirements. Companies that go beyond these sustained standards essentially work harder to meet sustainable standards—aiming to comply with practices that promote environmental and social sustainability.

Some examples of these certifications are Fair Trade and Global Organic Textile Standards (for clothing), LEED (for buildings), Green Business Bureau, Safer Choice, plus Energy Star, EDGE and PEER (for technology).

While there are currently no official certifications for sustainable food items (note that sustainable and “organic” food are not the same), you can check and see whether or not your chosen business serves to do the following:

Enhance environmental quality/natural resources

Make an efficient use of nonrenewable resources

Sustain the economic viability of farm operations

Enhance the quality of life for animals and human participants

Just to look deeper into the impact of one of these certifications, Fair Trade effectively goes beyond recognizing and upholding International Labor Organization standards. By ensuring that worker rights are respected, funds are allocated democratically, environmental practices are upheld and women’s rights/equal pay initiatives are enforced, this certification effectively ensures that consumers are paying for true corporate sustainability.

Each of these individually selected certifications complies with similar standards, serving as an excellent means to find and support sustainable corporations.

2. Does it Have Self-Enforced Codes or Inspections on Trade & Environmental Issues?

As many federally enforced sustainable codes are exceptionally vague and non-descript, companies with self-enforced codes are usually sustainably inclined. Most, if not all, companies have a Code of Conduct available on their website—a system which primarily serves to explain the company’s sustainable standards. Usually, this involves both internal and third-party inspections.

When researching whether or not a company is adhering to codes, make sure that they’re self-enforced. This clarification will usually be listed in a Code of Ethics, and it is very common for modern sustainable companies to include these inspections in their promotional material.

An example of these codes is featured in the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which has specific and detailed plans for “sustainable, corrective action” and reports all factory inspections. As this company effectively volunteers to be held accountable for what happens in their factories, they are practicing corporate accountability on an appropriate level.

3. Does it Practice Radical Transparency?

Don’t patronise companies that are vague about what they’re doing behind the scenes. If they’re open and accountable about the following matters, they’re likely ethical and sustainable (and worthy of your patronage).

Who sources their materials?

Do they encourage customers to ask questions?

Are they transparent about the conditions of their farm/factory/mode of production?

Are they transparent about the cost of production?

Some exemplary examples of corporate accountability are Everlane and Vital Farms, both of which are open and forthcoming about their factory and farm conditions.  Further, if you’re interested in databases that rank companies based on corporate accountability, the most notable and reputable ones are Green Seal, Forbes and AIM. Additionally, CLIMATE COUNTS is an incredibly influential website which ranks companies based on climate impact.

Zoe Appelbaum-Schwartz graduated with the Class of 2019 from Archer School for Girls. Appelbaum-Schwartz wrote this piece for a course on sustainable living.