Who Is Responsible for Achieving Sustainability?

Most people in the world would probably agree that sustainability is a good idea. We would probably not agree as easily on what sustainability is. And it is highly improbable that we would agree on who is responsible for achieving sustainability. Is it us consumers in rich countries? Or rather the governments in poor countries? Or is it the UN? Or maybe transnational corporations? Can this broadly put question be sensibly answered at all, or should we rather discriminate between different aspects of sustainability – by which we return to the question of what sustainability is? In what follows I would like to offer some possible answers to these questions.

The most widely known and acknowledged definition of sustainability originates from the famous Brundtland Report Our Common Future:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

As mostly the case with agreed upon definitions of abstract concepts, such as also biodiversity or democracy or capitalism, it is very vague and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Indeed, the Brundtland definition poses more questions that it answers. What are needs? Or put differently: what is well-being? To what extent are we “allowed” to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? What happens if we do? What about intragenerational equity concerns? Is sustainability restricted to environmental concerns or does it encompass social, political and economic dimensions? We are unlike to find a specific definition of sustainability that would be the “right” one, not least because of the difficulty to answer the “meta-question” of what is “right” (unanimously agreed upon? fulfilling some objective, possibly God-given criteria? etc.). While I have an opinion on what sustainability is, I don’t know an “objective” yet specific definition. So, in the end, it may be easier to determine what is not sustainable, while at the same time leaving open the possibility for the existence of “grey areas”, such as genetically modified crops. In this blog, I have been ranting many times about the consumer society or, as I have once called it, TESCO society, which I think can be deemed unsustainable without much controversy. The “Northern lifestyle” and many of the products we are consuming every day are unsustainable (as most of the time, I am going to focus on the global North’s sustainability problems since I do not know enough about the South to make judgements; the interested reader, however, may find Joan Martínez Alier’s concept of the “environmentalism of the poor” enlightening).

As I stated in the beginning of this post, most people agree that sustainability is something to be strived upon. However, it is not easy to agree upon what sustainability means – it may be a better idea to focus on what is not sustainable. But even if we do that and consequently draw the conclusion that unsustainable practices should be prevented and abandoned, it is still not clear who is responsible for achieving this goal. To make the seriousness of this problem clear, let us consider a rather simple example: apparel.

I presume that it is rather uncontroversial a claim that a 5€ t-shirt cannot possibly be a sustainable product. Cotton has to be harvested, transported, woven, possibly transported again, coloured, (transported), sewn, (transported) and eventually sold, creating both environmental and social problems all along the production chain if it is meant to cost only 5€. The cotton is likely to come from pesticide- and fertilizer-heavy monocultures, the transport from one low-wage area to another is likely to consume a lot of fossil fuels, the colouring process is likely to happen under very low work-safety and environmental standards and the shirt is likely to be sold in a little-paying discount supermarket chain store. Furthermore, it is likely to be worn over a rather short period of time and then thrown away and replaced by another one. A similar principle is valid for our electronics, cars, electricity, food etc. So, who should act to make all these production and consumption cycles more sustainable? Some say that it is the consumers, particularly in rich countries, who should buy fair trade apparel made of organic cotton, (let) repair smaller damages, wear their clothes until they fall apart. In other words, the consumer is asked to become sufficient. Others point to the companies who should in their opinion monitor their contractors, set human rights and environmental standards for them, refrain from legal-but-harmful activities by creating long-lived, easily repairable, non-toxic products (consistency). Still others see the responsibility for sustainability in governments and parliaments of both consumer and producer countries, asking them to impose and enforce rules and standards, to prohibit, award, punish and control.

Unfortunately, there are strong arguments against each of these “strategies”. With regard to consumers, the problem is a combination of ignorance and social dilemmas. First, we cannot expect that all consumers always know what is and is not sustainable and what this has to do with their own life and decisions (however nice this would be). Today, truly sustainable individual behaviour presupposes a huge amount of knowledge, a constant gathering and processing of new information and a certain portion of awareness that this abstract information actually has something to do with one’s own life. Second, a common argument against individual responsibility is that it is only a drop in the bucket. And this is a valid argument. One may strive to live sustainably by buying organic and fair products, refraining from flying or even from driving a car. Yet still, one cannot easily influence the behaviour of others. But only a large group together can achieve anything meaningfully sustainable. So, while some, myself included, want to have pure conscience and hope that others will follow, it is valid to say that this by itself will not bring about change. Indeed, it is often disillusioning to see how little influence a single consumer or even a small group can have on what is happening to, say, people working in banana plantations.

What about companies, then? Here, again, we encounter a social dilemma. Sustainable products and services cost more, often much more than “normal” ones. Since there are not many consumers willing to pay the premium (see above), companies trying to act sustainably in a unilateral way are likely to be outcompeted. Most consumers focus on prices – hardly anywhere more so than in Germany, where I happen to live -, so becoming more sustainable is futile from the perspective of both single companies and, also, sustainability itself. There are, of course, “better” and “worse” companies within each branch of the economy, the former showing that some more sustainability is possible without immediately getting outcompeted (a good example is the chocolate producer Ritter Sport). But this potential is rather limited. Also, in some areas businesses are “forced” to behave more sustainably by external pressures, as in the case of cocoa production, where unsustainable and reckless behaviour in recent decades has created a looming gap in the global cocoa supply. This is, however, a phenomenon limited in scope and thus does not have the potential for solving the sustainability problem.

If consumers and companies have only limited power to take on responsibility, maybe governments and parliaments can do it? They are not so much stuck in social dilemmas, although globalization has created problems in this respect, and have the potential to solve the social dilemmas haunting others. They may impose legal rules, norms etc. on all consumers and/or companies alike. The realization of this potential, however, is hindered by a few important limitations. First, as rightly noted by the great advocate of individual responsibility, Niko Paech, governments and parliaments are inherently reactive. They do nothing against the will of the majority, at least not openly (the NSA scandal has shown that they may do a lot secretly, but this is not really a suitable blueprint for our discussion here). Lobbies can play a role, too, since politicians are dependent not only on voters, but also, sadly, on donors. Furthermore, as exemplified by the “eco-policies” of the European Union, pro-sustainability rules and laws are seldom uncontroversial, but the more often only symbolic and create huge bureaucracies, which themselves are unsustainable, in a broad sense. Moreover, the inertia and slowness of political processes make it impossible to keep track of and react to all the unsustainable developments in production and consumption, a problem Friedrich Hayek rightly pointed out in his critique of Keynesian policies.

Is it hopeless then? Are our attempts to achieve sustainability doomed to failure? While not being very much of an optimist, I still think that a right mix of strategies and the right distribution of responsibilities might achieve a lot. Clear is: neither consumers nor companies nor governments should bear all responsibility alone. I recognise that social dilemmas abound, but I still think that it is irresponsible and, indeed, hypocritical to call for sustainability and at the same time retain an unsustainable lifestyle. Those who wish sustainability should be able to translate this desire at least partly into the language of their own choices and decisions as consumers. Meanwhile, they should not forget their role as citizens and ask both companies and governments to do “the right thing”. They should, however, not expect companies to unilaterally transform in do-gooders. This would be unrealistic. Companies should not for their part think that they have no responsibility at all. Transparency about their own products and their creation would help a lot. So would showing good will and sustainable behaviour where this is possible without threatening own competitiveness. And companies could, finally, view themselves as societal actors, honestly and openly engaging in societal debates regarding their products. E.g., support for a legislatory initiative might promote sustainability without harming the company in question since the resulting law would be binding for its competitors, too. And governments? It might be a good idea to restrict donations from firms to political parties. Transparency regarding donations, lobbyism and the political processes in general would relax the pressures resulting from opportunism and rent-seeking. Involving all relevant actors, including the civil society and businesses, in a transparent political process might also help governments to adhere to their part of the responsibility for achieving sustainability at societal scale. In the end, regulations are inevitable in many cases. But support for change through other – individual or corporate – channels is an important ingredient of good sustainability policy.

The question of who is responsible for achieving sustainability is, in the end, a question of balance. Since sustainability has relevance for all actors in the society, all of us bear some responsibility and all of us should be included in the transformation process. Denouncing single actors or groups of actors as responsible for unsustainable behaviour may be helpful in organizing civil campaigns, but in principle it is hypocrisy or, at best, dangerous naivety.

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2 thoughts on “Who Is Responsible for Achieving Sustainability?

  1. To facilitate decision making, sustainability scientists must assist in the task of making concrete both problems and solutions on all relevant temporal and spatial scales. This means that sustainability at the systemic level must be assessed, bringing to bear the following procedural elements: analysis of deeper-lying structures of the system,projection into the future, and assessment of sustainable and unsustainable trends.Evaluation of the effects of sustainable policy and the design of possible solutions through sustainable strategies also belong here.

    • This is relevant for decision making at the governmental level, partly also at the company level. But how should sustainability scientists (whoever those specifically are…) inform decisions at the individual level? Furthermore, your proposal works well in theory, but it blends out political, institutional and psychological issues which create a barrier between science and policy/decision making. And, last but not least, we are here in the area of post-normal science, where the involvement of “ordinary” citizens is crucial. The role of scientists, while important, should not be over-emphasized.

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