Packer Interview Andrew Southwood
( Photo courtesy Andrew Southwood )

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Most people, when hearing the word “sustainability,” associate it with reducing carbon emissions, introducing renewable fuel sources, reducing plastics, protecting environments and keeping the sensitive ecosystems of our planet in balance. 

While all of this does apply, sustainability within a business context is much more, especially for those involved in growing fresh produce.

It’s clear from the feedback received on my July 15 Packer column “Are sustainability and stewardship the same?” that there are multiple perspectives at work regarding how sustainability relates to the fresh produce industry. 

Working toward a common understanding of what it means and how we should respond is part of an ongoing conversation, which The Packer’s Sustainable Produce Summit in September will help shape.
This article feeds into that conversation by looking back to 1987 when the Brundtland Report, also called Our Common Future, was released by the World Commission on Environment and Development. 

It introduced the concept of sustainable development and described how it could be achieved, with the aim of directing nations toward the goal of sustainable development, which the report concluded is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

For the first time in modern history the needs of people (current and future generations) and the environment were acknowledged to be integrally related. This guiding principle was integrated into the business context in 1994, when John Elkington (founder of British consultancy SustainAbility) coined “the triple bottom line” phrase, arguing that companies should focus on three different (and quite separate) bottom lines. 

The first measure is that of corporate profit, which we are all familiar with. The second bottom line of a company is its  “people account,” measuring how socially responsible an organization is throughout its operations. The last bottom line of the company is how it is accountable to the “planet,” measuring how environmentally responsible it has been. 

These three measures of accountability have become known as the triple bottom line or three Ps: profit, people and planet. The aim is to measure the financial, social and environmental performance of a company over time, so supporting the principle of sustainable development as defined in the Brundtland Report.

Building on this understanding of accountability beyond profit, Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Center in 2009 introduced the concept of living within planetary boundaries if the earth is to remain hospitable for human life. Nine boundaries have been identified and studied at length, with fresh produce production touching each. 

Sustainability and sustainable development are therefore about balancing that fine line between competing needs as stated by

“It’s about our need to move forward technologically and economically, and the needs to protect the environments in which we and others live. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about our health as a society in ensuring that no people or areas of life suffer as a result of environmental legislation, and it’s also about examining the longer term effects of the actions humanity takes and asking questions about how it may be improved.” 

For years, most fresh produce companies have accommodated sustainability and sustainable development under the corporate social responsibility umbrella, with few linked to the pursuit of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the UN Sustainability Summit in September 2015 or planetary boundaries.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We have to acknowledge that if businesses are going to thrive in the future, this necessitates a healthy environment and equitable society. 

By understanding the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, planetary boundaries and how each business impacts these, fresh produce companies can formulate bold goals that help build a prosperous future. The time has come to reinvent corporate social responsbility as something that’s part of company strategy and not an add-on!

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

More from Andrew Southwood:
Are sustainability and stewardship the same?

More on the Sustainable Produce Summit:
The Packer and Trust In Food Launch Sustainable Produce Summit