Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sustainability: Made in the USA?

The concept of sustainability has captured the attention of the global community. In general, if we support sustainability, we acknowledge that satisfying the needs of the current generation should not impact the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainable practices include efficient use of natural resources, use of renewable energy such as wind and solar power, and reduction of emissions harmful to the atmosphere. Using resources irresponsibly harms our children and our children’s children.

Companies have rushed to support sustainability. In our own industry, Wal-Mart recently announced a major initiative that will measure the full environmental impact of the products its sells in their stores through their “sustainability index.” Their view is that sustainability will become so important to their customers that they will factor this index into their purchasing decisions.

If companies are truly committed to sustainability, they must review their global supply chain to understand the impact their production has on the environment EVERYWHERE. Strict regulations in the US provide basic environmental standards. But as companies span the globe in search of lower manufacturing costs, their foreign suppliers might not be governed by similar regulations. What happens then? It is disingenuous to tout sustainability here at home and then turn a blind eye if foreign suppliers dump raw sewage into foreign streams or release dangerous toxins into the atmosphere.

A sustainability idea that is gaining traction in the agricultural industry is a push for local farming. Supporters believe that we should grow our food close to the markets that consume them. People have a heightened awareness of activities taking place in their own communities. They support fair living and working standards in their own communities and often use local resources more efficiently. Local farming requires fewer additives due to a reduced lag time between production and use. Finally, local farming significantly reduces the resources required to move the goods from producer to the consumer.

In our industry, a similar argument can be made. Instead of local farming, we can support local manufacturing. Many customers are asking their suppliers to demonstrate their sustainability initiatives. Suppliers often point to increased use of recycled materials, decreased use of harmful chemicals in manufacturing, and increased use of renewable energy to power our factories. Why not add local manufacturing to this list? Practices such as producing goods 8,000 miles away in Shenzen, loading them on a gas guzzling freighter, and shipping them over the Pacific Ocean simply can not be considered sustainable. These activities are eliminated by producing close to the home market. Recycling the Made in the USA mantra to support sustainability, wouldn’t Lee Iacocca be proud?

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