Over recent decades the word ‘sustainable’ has become a mantra for businesses seeking to promote their corporate social responsibility credentials. Transnational corporations like Walmart, PepsiCo, McDonald’s and Starbucks have placed sustainability at the heart of both their operational manifestos and their public relations campaigns.

However, ‘sustainable’ is a wholly unregulated word and appears in advertising claims without any formal definition. And, in the absence of enforced international standards with a clear and robust definition of the word, corporations are defining sustainability in their own terms, leaving consumers to come to their own interpretations – which tend to vary widely.

The challenge of defining sustainability

The notion of ‘sustainability’ in food and agriculture grew out of the concept of sustainable development. It was first presented in Our Common Future, the World Commission on Environment and Development’s report, in 1987.

The report defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. It also established the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental and economic. Sometimes referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’, the United Nations now call these pillars the three P’s: People, Planet and Prosperity.

The concept gained traction with the advent of the environmental movement and it is important to keep its relative novelty in mind. It continues to evolve as farm practices change, scientific research advances and consumer knowledge grows. Practices that were considered sustainable decades ago, may no longer be considered sustainable now; and, likewise, many practices that may be considered sustainable in the future are not yet known or imagined.

As a result of this constant evolution, there is a growing recognition that developing a clear definition of sustainability is a complex challenge – one that is trumped only by the task of developing suitable mechanisms to measure and regulate it.

In many regards, sustainability’s wide-ranging nature stands in the way of its objectives. How do you condense such a broad concept into a set of underlying principles that guide practical action and offer effective governance? Currently attempts to do so emphasise certain aspects of the three P’s over others, but who decides which values matter most?

As a result of these challenges, some researchers argue that sustainability is more like a goal to work towards rather than a set of well-defined, measurable practices. ‘Sustainability’ is a rather ambiguous term, shaped by individual interpretation, business imperatives and political agendas.

Corporations and sustainability

This ambiguity has allowed different stakeholders to utilise and incorporate the concept of sustainability into their business operations and corporate communications. In an attempt to meet the growing demand from consumers and NGOs for corporate social responsibility, companies across the food industry have been taking advantage of this ambiguity to strategically build sustainability into their brand, setting their own agendas and regulating their own practices based on their own malleable definition of sustainability.

In 2005, Walmart became one of the first major food retailers to adopt extensive ‘sustainable foodgoals. These aim to provide increased transparency in greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and agricultural yields, while sourcing from and providing training to small and medium-sized farmers in emerging economies. Similarly, PepsiCo have developed their Performance with Purpose initiative, establishing strategic goals across their own three pillars: ‘Human Sustainability’, ‘Environmental Sustainability’, and something called ‘Talent Sustainability’. McDonald’s is seeking to create a more sustainable restaurant menu, while Starbucks has developed its own certification scheme known as Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, in which producers are incentivised to meet sustainability criteria set by the company, but on a voluntary basis.

These company initiatives are being channelled to consumers via advertising, social media and product packaging. While this communications push is encouraging consumers to think about sustainability issues, there lies an intrinsic value for corporations in communicating sustainability: it allows them to identify and access new markets while enhancing their brand reputation and public profile.

This ever-expanding range of sustainability claims, both founded and unfounded, has led to a labyrinthine volume of  standards and commitments, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between truly ethical companies and those taking opportunistic advantage of the sustainability trend.

Currently, there are no internationally agreed upon legal standards articulating labour, environmental or human rights obligations that are directly binding on the operations of transnational corporations. This lack of international regulatory standards has given rise to a powerful new system of ‘transnational private governance’ in which corporate actors oversee the ethical and ecological facets of their own economic activity.

As a result, corporations have the power to focus on specific elements of sustainability (which they themselves have defined) while obscuring the whole spectrum of sustainability issues. The specificities of supply chain practices developed in Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices programme, for example, are more narrowly defined and enforced in comparison to the more rigorous fairtrade system. While the programme ensures economic accountability through a price premium, social and environmental sustainability criteria are not promoted via a regulatory code specifying and enforcing minimum standards, but rather via an ‘incentive system’. Starbucks argues that the development of this set of incentivised guidelines for C.A.F.E. Practices is so that they may ‘use the carrot rather than the stick’.


Seeking to tackle such issues of self-governance, the exponentially growing field of sustainable certification and ‘ecolabels now encompasses complex and interrelated factors of the food-supply chain, ranging from production practices and workers’ welfare to recycling and wastage considerations. Stand-out certifications in the sustainability lexicon include ‘organic’, ‘fairtrade’ and ‘carbon neutral’, and eco-labels may designate ‘biodegradable packaging’ or ‘all natural ingredients’.

Certification and eco-labels are efforts to communicate potentially desirable information to consumers that is otherwise obscured by the veil of transnational supply chains. With so many different certification logos, package designs and environmental claims, however, the potential for ‘green noise’ and consumer confusion is high.

In fact, according to a report by consumer group Which? based on a survey of over 1,000 people, even those who actively try to seek out more sustainable food demonstrate little understanding and awareness of most ethical certification schemes and labels on the market. While the highest level of awareness was for ‘fairtrade’ (82%), followed by ‘organic’ (54%), there was still confusion among consumers about what these standards actually mean.

In 2012, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its latest version of the Green Guides which set guidelines to help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims. The Green Guides state that marketers must not make “unqualified general environmental benefit claims” but they do not address sustainable product and service claims. The FTC declined to provide guidelines for the term ‘sustainable’ because, as stated in their 2012 press release, it “lacked an adequate basis to give meaningful guidance.”

The breadth of the term, the diversity of its use and imagery, and the impracticability of testing the claim were all cited as reasons for refusing to provide meaningful guidance on how the term should be appropriately used. With a lack of a formal definition, the term ‘sustainable’, like the term ‘natural’, runs the risk of coming to mean both everything and nothing at all.

Towards a sustainable future

With the launch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, emphasis on ensuring sustainable production and consumption may serve as strong motivation for transnational companies to integrate sustainability into their business strategies and supply chain practices.

While standards are one way to encourage sustainable practices, certification alone is not enough. In the words of the SDG itself, to ensure sustainable change, all players including “business, consumers, policymakers, researchers, scientists, retailers, media, and development cooperation agencies” must develop new initiatives and solutions for sustainable supply chain management.

But to truly achieve the goals of sustainability laid out in Our Common Future, we need to take a three-pronged attack: advancing our understanding of sustainable practices; striving to find effective mechanisms for its measurement; and defining and regulating the use of the the word as a means of mitigating its misappropriation by financially motivated transnational corporate interests.

Photograph: Mike Mozart

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