Illustration by Steve McCracken

Vishal Agrawal, associate professor of operations and information management at Georgetown McDonough, shares five tips for how consumers can better evaluate the sustainability of companies they patronize.

1. Relevant Metrics

Ask whether the companies you are considering focus on the right sustainability dimension. If the biggest concern regarding the product category is related to water use and efficiency, then whether or not the product packaging is recyclable may be a far less important sustainability dimension.

2. Reduce and Reuse

Companies and consumers alike tend to focus on dealing with products at their end of life, e.g., recycling or safe disposal. While this is good, being sustainable at the start of products’ lives — such as reducing materials during production, or extending their lives by reusing, refurbishing, or remanufacturing them — can be far more sustainable than the end-of-life approach.

3. Research Ecolabels

In order to communicate the sustainability of their products, companies use ecolabels and certifications such as organic or fair trade. However, there are many ecolabels out there, and not all are credible or verifiable. Always research the ecolabel to ensure it is credible, authenticated by an independent third party, and addresses the main sustainability issue for that product or industry.

4. Bigger Companies Can Be Sustainable

One may be tempted to assume that smaller, independent companies or brands are more sustainable than larger companies. In many settings, bigger firms may have the sufficient power, scale, and technology to induce upstream suppliers to adopt sustainable practices and, therefore, be more sustainable overall.

5. Do Not Pursue Perfection

Being sustainable can be difficult, not just for companies, but also for consumers. No product or company is perfect in terms of its sustainability. It is a good first step to choose those that are more sustainable than their competitors.

 

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2018