Why it’s important to be critical about sustainability.

In a recent two part blogpost I discussed the idea of Civil religion (part 1), in order to explore some of the evidence for how sustainability was becoming ‘sacralized’ in contemporary social and organisational practices (part 2). 

I’m certainly not advocating the sustainability should be treated like a Civil Religion.  Rather I want to draw attention that it continues to manifest as a shared trope that is growing in usage.  In this post I want to expand on this by pointing out some of the dangers in accepting that sustainability is necessarily something ‘good’.  When we consider anything ‘sacred’, we run the risk of exempting it from critical assessment and opening up avenues for potential conceptual abuses.  Some of the most illustrious names in contemporary management and organisational theory pointed out in the introduction to one of the first special editions of an academic journal to address the crisis, business theorists, researchers and teachers need to make critical thinking central to our work. 

So how can introducing the sustainable to businesses be bad?  Take this famous example;

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Adrian Parr‘s wonderful book Hijacking sustainability (a must-read, alongside Adam Werbach‘s Strategy for Sustainability for a different perspective) dives into the cultural ‘fact’ of sustainability.  As an idea and a set of practices it is ‘everywhere’.  What is less prevalent is an understanding of how certain entities use the religious aspect of it (the omnipotence, the sanctity) for their own ends.  By buying a product that has been branded (or blessed) as sustainable we are allowing ourselves to tacitly participate in the discourse it is supposed to espouse.  So, by buying the product in the video above, we are not only chose to consume in an ethical fashion, but, as Parr (2009) says ‘In effect, what we are buying is the feeling of power that an ecobrand image gives us, not the object itself’ (p. 30).  Not only do I feel good about the product; purchasing and consuming the product makes me feel like a good parent. 

Here’s why this is dangerous (some upsetting images here – sorry). 

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Greenpeace’s response to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty had something of a positive ending; Unilever responded to Greenpeace’s call for an immediate moratorium on deforestation for palm oil plantations.  This is an example of the importance of critical thinking in action.  Sustainability is too important to be treated within anything less than a critical mindset.  Sustainability deserves it.  Otherwise, for those of us who care about the role of business in society, environmental protection and community development, sustainability will become no more than a simple article of faith.