Why sustainability is not “good”

A couple of years ago, I saw Jeffrey Hollender speak at a Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) conference.  Jeffrey was a co-founder (along with a guy named Alan Newman, who went on to create another Vermont brand, Magic Hat) of Seventh Generation, a company that makes “environmentally friendly” cleaning products and is a leader in the corporate social responsibility movement.  Imagine an auditorium filled with a couple of hundred business people bent on being more socially responsible, and Jeffrey comes out with this: that he didn’t consider 7thG’s products to be good. Because there’s a big difference between “less bad” and “good”. He said that, “as much as I like Seventh Generation products–and I think they’re great–they are only ‘less bad’. All of our products create CO2 emissions, they create garbage, and they use natural resources. They’re better than our competitors, but they’re not good.”

He went on to say that it’s not enough to try to reduce the amount of damage we’re doing to the world—we need to renew and repair the damage that’s already been done, and to work towards positive change.  I figure that if we’re all headed for hell in a handbasket (although personally I’ve never actually ridden in a handbasket), the only thing “less bad” will accomplish is to slow down the ride a little bit.

Physicians taking the Hippocratic Oath agree “to do no harm.” Green hotels reduce their negative environmental impact by conserving energy, composting and reusing sheets and towels. Seventh Generation works hard to formulate products with far less undesirable chemical byproducts. And while producing special events may seem a whole lot different than manufacturing laundry detergent or treating patients, Jeff’s point about going from “less bad” to “good” still applies.

Don’t get me wrong; sustainable measures aren’t just good–they’re a great idea.  It’s fairly common practice to incorporate at least some sustainable practices into events these days and that’s definitely moving in the right direction, but we can do better than that. There are many opportunities to use The Power of Events to leave the world a little better place than before—and that’s good!

About Peter Straube

educator, event producer, experience designer, and explorer View all posts by Peter Straube

6 responses to “Why sustainability is not “good”

  • Christina

    Great points, Peter. I would love to move away from terms like ‘waste reduction’ and ‘energy conservation’ to regeneration and restoration. Let’s not aim for carbon neutrality, but rather putting something positive back!

  • Peter Straube

    Thanks, Christina. Social responsibility can go a lot further than just trying not to screw things up too much!

  • Keith Johnston


    Great points and great thoughts…. Good would be Great!

    It would be nice if we could get people to change their views and start. Yes, I am ending the sentence with start..

    One of the biggest problems I see in the meetings and events industry is that we have a group of people that are trying hard to educate, innovate and become the industry that I know we could be (they are trying!) and a second group that is doing nothing and will probably not do anything until the Great Plains look like Nevada in August.

    I (along with you and others) have been beating the drum for years with only a trickle of success stories and plenty of stares of indifference.

    Here is to hoping that we can shift the tide and create an industry where “not being good” is not the norm and we are moving in the right direction!

    Keep up the good work!

    • Peter Straube

      Thanks for the encouragement, Keith. I suppose this “movement” (small but growing, I suspect) is like any other: it starts out slowly, but eventually gains momentum and attracts a following. I agree that it would be nice if we could get people to change their views and “start”. Part of what I (and hopefully others) will be exploring on this blog is the challenge of getting people engaged, creating an experience that shifts their thinking and then inspires them to change their behavior and/or take action on their own. It seems to me that live events are one of the most effective ways to make that happen, so it’s great to connect with others who are already thinking that way. You can help “the cause” by continuing to write and comment like you have here, following me on Twitter and retweeting posts when you feel so moved…I think more and more people are opening up to anything that taps into social responsibility principles, so maybe the time is ripe to gain some momentum!

  • Shawna McKinley

    Great post. The difference between ‘doing less harm’ and ‘doing better’ is such an important distinction for events. Concur with Christina that offsetting is a great example of the important distinction between the two. The language around being ‘carbon neutral’ or (wince) ‘carbon positive’ creates a perception we’re doing better, when we’re really not. Would love to see regeneration of resources as the new sustainable event horizon! What would that even look like? Presenters pedaling to power their own AV? Lunches direct from rain-watered roof top gardens on the venue? Would be great to have a think tank propose what restorative sustainable events actually look like.

    • Peter Straube

      Wow–great idea, Shawna. I think there are two barriers to really getting things rolling in the direction you describe: there is the challenge of educating and inspiring people to action, but then there’s the solution part, and I think that requires a great deal of creativity!
      What’s really interesting to me is the fact that, by definition, events bring lots of people together, which makes them a great place to start producing a significant impact through the kinds of things you’ve suggested here. It fits right into the idea of leaving the place better than when you got there. I will keep this in mind for future posts!

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