This is a guest post from Tom Szaky, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of TerraCycle, which provides free waste collection, and then turns that waste into sustainable products.
Rio +20: Who is really Responsible for Responsibility?
Economic profit and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive; you can “go green” without putting yourself in the red, a concept TerraCycle self-defines as "eco-capitalism." Yet in an effort to maximize financial gain, many businesses fail to factor in the steep environmental costs brought about by unsustainable supply chains and production methods. Focusing solely on income and profits will not result in an earth-friendly outcome – which has the potential to adversely affect a business in unforeseen ways. But we all know that by now... or do we?
Unfortunately, the answer is as disheartening as it is self-evident – although, if you do need additional evidence, look no further than Rio +20. The largest United Nations conference to date, Rio +20 was designed to unite governments, businesses, and NGO's alike in the pursuit of sustainable development. Its outcome, however, fell quite short of its expectations, as Rio's 45,000 participants concluded their discussions on June 22nd without reaching any crucial agreements on sustainbility.
Although discussion and cooperation are critical to mediating economic and environmental interests, actions speak louder than words. Businesses, consumers, governments – everybody must work together and take the eco-friendly initiative to protect our planet (within which humanity has a clearly vested interest), but it all starts when somebody takes that first step forward. Sustainability exists outside of proposals; it is as tangible and real as we choose to make it.
Companies that design and implement eco-friendly packaging, for example, promote sustainability – and so do their consumers who choose to recycle such purchases. Businesses that limit – or, even better, eliminate – their use of virgin plastics in production are wonderfully eco-conscious, just as their clientele who re-use these products are environmentally responsible. It should come as no surprise that sustainability, the capacity to be maintained at a given rate, is a cyclical process. It may, however, come as a surprise to hear that sustainability does not necessarily entail sacrifice.
By nature of its business model, my company, TerraCycle, is very much invested in garbage – quite literally, in fact. Our unique recycling programs allow us to spin straw into gold (or trash into cash, as it were) while simultaneously benefitting the environment and encouraging eco-consciousness. By trying to eliminate the idea of waste, TerraCycle both promotes and practices sustainability. What's more, we facilitate environmentally sustainable relationships between businesses and their consumers. Major corporations such as Kraft Foods, L’Oreal and Frito Lay partner with TerraCycle in order to make their packaging recyclable for the first time, but they also receive massive ROI through positive PR, brand ambassadorship and deep community engagement.
Our collection systems, called the “Brigade” programs, allow companies to reward their consumers for collecting and sorting their waste, which is then sent to TerraCycle to be recycled or upcycled into new, innovative products. It's a win-win-win situation; businesses are given a proactive solution for their waste, their consumers are given money towards their charity of choice, and TerraCycle can profit and continue to solve for more waste streams.
Sustainability should be a universal initiative; we owe to it both ourselves and to one another to protect our world. The bottom line: The costs of unsustainable business are manifold and, given our current economic trajectory, pose an ever-increasing threat to our future. Change is necessary on a large scale, but it begins with individuals and businesses, which are willing to lead us on the forefront of eco-conscious innovation and see the long-term fiscal value in these efforts.
So let's stop pointing fingers and take that first step forward.