( Photo courtesy Andrew Southwood )

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Tom Karst’s recent sustainability survey in the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group polled readers as to their top sustainability priority from a list of four options. The responses that followed in the conversation thread associated with the survey highlighted the manner in which many people in the produce industry use “sustainability” and “stewardship” as interchangeable terms. 

This is understandable given how fragmented communication around the concept of sustainability has been over the years. To help bring clarity to these terms, we need to contrast what they each stand for, highlighting what they have in common and how they differ.

Not much has been written or published regarding the concept of stewardship. Farmer and writer Wendell Berry has addressed stewardship. Nancy Myers in 2012 used work from Berry and other prominent thinkers to distill seven principles to support life-enhancing economics for land owners, which are useful as a proxy. 

They are broader in their approach than the landstewardship.org definition that “stewardship is the conservation of your property’s natural resources and features over a long period of time,” which is probably why many growers still use the term.

While those principles of counting all that costs, treasuring what’s valuable, imagining the details, buying from neighbors, liberating consumers, building for the future and forming partnerships are all relevant in business decision-making today, they fall short of what sustainability really means and calls for.
Sustainability is an approach to business that looks at how long-term value can be created for both internal and external stakeholders through ecological, social and environmental lenses to foster company longevity and relevance in the marketplace.

This framework is often referred to as the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit). The use of these lenses originated with John Elkington in 1994, with a recent update by him regarding “profit” and the need to change it to “prosperity.” His belief is that we need to think more broadly if we are going to address the growing inequality in the world.

Sustainability is a way of looking and doing things first and foremost with a global mindset. COVID-19 is a reminder that we are all connected and can no longer ignore what happens on the other side of the world. It reminds us that the natural systems we all rely upon are intimately linked with what is done at farm level and involve multiple stakeholders way beyond the farm gate. 

True sustainability is a mindset that is international in its approach, purposeful in the value it adds to all stakeholders, resource-optimized for operations, circular in thinking, supply chain resilient, ecologically friendly and culturally attuned. 

So while putting up solar panels or installing LED lights counts as a sustainability action and is noteworthy in itself, this alone does not make a company sustainable in the long run.

Andrew Southwood is a business development strategist in the Montreal area consulting in the fresh produce sector on business resilience and adaptability.

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