Thursday, 3 February 2011

Unilever, sustainability and maths

Unilever - the world's third largest maker of branded goods - has just published its 4th quarter results. They show a significant rise in sales and profits.

I admire Unilever. I admire its commitment to sustainability. The company's public communications say some very sensible things. For example, they try not only to reduce their direct environmental footprint (the energy and the materials they use and the waste that results) but to use research to reduce the footprint of their customers when using Unilever products.

But I have difficulty with the term 'sustainability'. It misleads people. Growth is not sustainable - I don't advocate stopping growth but is does not carry on forever. Imagine that Unilever continued growing at 5% per annum in real terms. In 100 years they would be 131 times the size they are today, with sales of some £5,200,000,000,000. That is 4 times the size of the UK economy today. In 200 years...well the number is unimaginably huge and probably much bigger than the world economy will be then.

Companies do not grow forever. They stop growing or fail completely or they are eventually split up and disappear into the background economy. What Uniler mean by 'sustainability' is not sustainable it is just reducing their impact on the environment.  It is more sustainable. I know that is not such a snappy catchphrase but it says what it means.

The paradox is highlighted by the report of the UN's Brundtland Commission in 1983 that defined

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
 Which is admirable but must surely preclude any mining activity whatever? Sacrificing today's civilisation for tomorrow's is a paradox because you don't get civilisation tomorrow without it building on civilisation today. And today's civilisation does not exist without the extraction of raw materials to feed it. Much of our high tech communications depends upon Rare Earth metals that seem to be in limited supply in the earth's crust. Do we stop mining in order to preserve stocks for future generations? Why do those generations deserve more than we do? Maybe the best solution is to carry on mining and to hope that new technologies emerge before we exhaust supplies. This is a rational strategy but it may not work. There may be no alternative technologies.

My conclusion? I have no answers but let us not delude ourselves that 'sustainability' means any more than minimising our impact on the environment.

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