Reconciling Consumerism and Sustainability
To those Americans who dismiss Europe as a backward, leftist, and socialist land, I say, back off—the business leaders I met and to whom I listened at the GRI Conference would run circles around my business school professors and most managers across the pond! To those Europeans who slam America as a consumer-frenzied, overindulged society, I say, not so fast: based on the crowds I saw in the shopping areas and the lines I saw in the stores, I think both sides of the Atlantic know how to spend a buck (or Euro). I was thinking about this as I walked into a C&A store in downtown Amsterdam: the German equivalent of H&M that for some reason (surprisingly) has established itself in Latin America but not in the US yet. Thanks to my poor planning and the rain yesterday, I got soaked not once, but twice! So what does a visitor who under-packed for his trip do? Go to C&A, where I could get some clothes for me—and my honey—so I wouldn’t catch pneumonia as I am leaving today for a quick overnight trip to Maastricht. In a way, The Netherlands is a disposable society. Well, the Dutch have to be. Glass and paper are recycled with a decent amount of bins scattered throughout the country. Pilot composting programs have started. But where does the rest of the trash go? It is incinerated and turned into electricity. It’s not the most efficient system: only 30% of the electricity generated from trash in the Netherlands becomes electricity. But in a country that is mostly below sea level and has limited space, strict landfill laws are in place to divert waste. It’s actually cheaper for the country to burn plastic goods than to recycle them—so you have an example of a society making the best possible choice they can make. End result: only 0.5 to 1% of trash gets tucked away in a dump. But like the rest of the world, the Dutch have to face the fact that they are still consuming. C&A, like other clothing chains, are now offering “bio” (organic cotton or recycled plastic) clothing. But here’s the deal. Just because something is organic, doesn’t mean it’s not using water, fertilizer (organic or not), fuel, and hard labor to make those clothes. And the impact of those clothes last for as long as the item is worn and washed—leaving a greater footprint on the earth than the process under which it was manufactured. You still have to dry clean, wash, and/or dry it. So what’s better: recycling, turning an unwanted item into energy, or not buying that product in the first place? There are no easy answers: but this is something to ponder. No perfect solution really exists.