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The companies practicing ‘secret sustainability’

The Observer reports:

There’s a factory in Asia that uses only a single litre of water to make a pair of jeans. That’s 346 litres less than Levi-Strauss estimated it took to make a pair of its jeans in 2015. Wouldn’t you love to buy your jeans from this amazingly innovative factory? Me too, but I don’t even know what it’s called.

The manufacturer in question does not want to tell anyone about its groundbreaking water-conserving techniques – not even the companies it supplies. It is one of many practising “secret sustainability”, whereby innovations are silently enacted and kept from the rest of the industry.

This phenomenon is not limited to the clothing industry. The UK organic groceries market has been expanding steadily for the past eight years. The Soil Association estimates that it increased by 5.3% in the past 12 months and is now worth £2.2bn a year. So you would expect any food or drink manufacturer renouncing pesticides and artificial fertilisers in favour of organic production methods to let potential customers know, if not via a PR campaign, then at least on the label or via accreditation.

This is not the case for two Portuguese wineries that have quietly switched from conventional to organic practices. They made the switch out of concern for the health of their soils (excessive use of fertiliser can reduce the nutrients in soil, leading to poorer harvests). Instead of buying pesticides and artificial fertilisers, they have invested heavily in labour and technology. They now use drones with sophisticated sensors, and employ software that can predict potential issues affecting soil or vine health. The result is healthier soil, healthier vines and an 18% harvest increase per hectare, with a significantly reduced environmental footprint. And they haven’t told their retail customers.

Why would firms spearheading sustainable practices not publicise their good work? It’s a question that puzzles Professor Steve Evans, director of research in industrial sustainability at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing, who suggests that such examples are widespread. He believes this stems from a common perception that there must be some kind of downside to the introduction of sustainable practices: either a reduction in product quality, or an increase in the price of manufacturing, or both. In the case of the Portuguese wineries, both already had good reputations for quality. All they wanted to do was to keep giving consumers great wine at a good price, without degrading their soil. They hadn’t increased the cost of making wine as they shifted to organic practice. Their management was concerned that introducing the organic designation would lead consumers to question the quality of their wine. They also feared that if they raised their prices to meet the expectation that organic wine costs more, they risked making their wine unaffordable to their current customers. Why rock the boat? Consumers seem to believe that products cannot become more sustainable without becoming more expensive. So anything to the contrary is met with suspicion. [Continue reading…]

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