Touching the Elephant of Sustainability

A familiar parable from the Indian subcontinent describes a group of blind men examining an elephant. One man touches the elephant’s tail and thinks it’s like a rope. Another touches the elephant’s side and think it’s like a wall. The man who touches an ear imagines a huge hand fan. Feeling a leg convinces the fourth man that an elephant is like a tree.

In reality, of course, each of the men was partly right but mostly wrong. They had each grasped only a piece of the truth.

People who are focusing on sustainability for the first time are a lot like those blind men. Some think sustainability is all about recycling and reducing the waste that flows to landfills. Others focus on practices like sustainable forestry that ensure that future generations can enjoy the same resources we do today. Still others are more concerned with the present and campaign for a living wage and fair treatment of workers.

As a result of their limited vision, people often take actions that are less sustainable than they imagine. For example, they’ll set out recycling bins but continue to buy bottled water, even though using tap water is cheaper and healthier (assuming they don’t live in a community like Flint, Mich., that is facing a water crisis). Or they’ll buy clothing they don’t need and will not get full use of, rationalizing that that’s okay since the clothing is made from organic cotton.

While it can be frustrating to realize that you’re not living as sustainably as you think, there’s also good news. Sustainability is not a binary choice, where you’re either a paragon of sustainable living or a retrograde resource hog. Instead, sustainability is a journey, and you can always take another step forward.

Over the past 20 years or so, outdoor gear maker Patagonia has publicly chronicled its journey toward ever greater sustainability. In 1996 it began making all its cotton sportswear from 100% organic cotton. But that was only the beginning. Through its Worn Wear program, it fixes its customers’ gear and encourages them to upcycle things they don’t want anymore; since 2004, it has recycled or upcycled more than 164,000 pounds of its own products.

More recently, Patagonia has begun examining its use of fossil fuels to create the synthetic fabrics that make up its jacket shells. In doing so, it has encountered an obstacle:

“To address this challenge without losing the durability that represents the ‘good’ of our shells conundrum, we’ve tried all sorts of alternatives to fossil fuel-based shell fabrics by developing fabrics from recycled polyester. But recycled nylon is still less durable, heavier, and harder to obtain in quantity—so we still find ourselves relying on virgin nylon for its durability. Is this the right decision? Is it possible to quantify all the details needed to understand if this is the best choice?” (https://www.patagonia.com/a-shell-game-in-the-dark.html)

Of course, most consumers don’t have the time to think through questions like that when they’re shopping for a new ski jacket; instead, they rely on corporation reputations or gut reactions.

To make sustainable shopping a little easier—at least in terms of clothing and accessories—two Global Fellows with Acumen, a non-profit, impact investing fund, founded Project Just (www.projectjust.com). The organization’s wiki offers in-depth reports on clothing manufacturers and retailers from A (Abercrombie & Fitch) to Z (Zara). Each report offers a high-level summary, along with detailed information on transparency, labor conditions, environmental impact, and more. Patagonia, for example, gets generally good marks, and its denim and athletic wear has been Just Approved™. (Project Just offers free access to three company reports per month, as well as access to its Just Approved lists and a handy glossary of terms like Fair Trade and Responsible Down Standard; beyond that, you must subscribe to use the service.)

Becoming more sustainable can be hard work. Fortunately, another elephant metaphor may come in handy. An old joke asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: “One bite at a time.”