The problem with "sustainability"
17 Sep 2021

Looking at some of the issues around the term “sustainability”, how its used, how its understood, how it can be exploited.

Recently I’ve watched a few stories come to the top of the media agenda about sustainability:

  1. Oatly accepting investment from private equity firm Blackstone
  2. Leon, the food chain, declaring their burgers to be carbon neutral
  3. The annual round-up of the world’s most sustainable brands and people being surprised to see Unilever, Danone and Ikea all found in the top 5

There are a few elements going on with these 3 areas and so I thought I’d tackle them one by one:

Firstly, can a brand be sustainable if their investors are not?

Next, is carbon offsetting greenwashing?

And finally, what is sustainability in professional terms, what does it mean – how is it judged?



There’s been fierce debate on this topic – were Oatly right to take investment from a private equity firm who have money tied up in a company associated with deforestation? It’s a difficult one to answer as it is a very emotive subject for people who feel that they have championed a small brand and, as they were finally becoming a viable mainstream alternative, seemed to go against their own ethos and get in bed with the devil. But is it that simple?

I would say no, it’s not that simple. Was the pairing of Blackstone and Oatly a match made in heaven, probably not, but did the sale of a small percentage of shares mean that Oatly deserved all of the vitriol it received?

One of the biggest things hampering the growth of the sustainable sector is financing, any who works in sustainability can attest to this. You hear it on the news – not enough investment in green energy and subsidies for fossil fuels. So, what do you do when you are offered money to grow a fantastic, sustainable brand, but a percentage of the funds have come from unsustainable sources – do you turn it down?

Another thing to consider, if we really want the world to become more sustainable then we need to start showing funds and investors that these newer, greener markets are worth investing in and that they can create great returns. Inevitably, this will mean drawing money away from their unsustainable investments into more long-term beneficial ones. No large corporation is going to change overnight so we will (hopefully) increasingly see this seemingly incompatible investment strategy.

If we want to see sustainable brands succeed we might have to accept that their investors might have an unpalatable past.



This term can be seen on a spectrum – some brands are blatantly greenwashing their products and marketing – the vast majority of ‘fast fashion’ can be quite rightly accused of this. But are some other, well-meaning brands getting burned unnecessarily?

Leon recently announced that their plant-based burgers were ‘carbon neutral’. So how have they come to this conclusion:

  • All of their restaurants use renewable energy
  • The burgers are plant-based
  • They are working with a 3rd party called ClimatePartner that calculate their carbon footprint so that they can calculate how many trees they need to grow as a counterbalance

The basic argument against using these 3 elements to make a “carbon neutral burger” is that a burger could not be carbon neutral by virtue of purchasing offsetting credits. There are also arguments against the effectiveness of the 3rd party's methodology.

With this in mind, can anything be carbon neutral? Are all offsetting schemes just marketing ploys? Carbon emissions are created in the development of pretty much everything, so if we cannot absorb the carbon emissions at the point of creation and neutralise them then, is it just greenwashing?

Here I would sympathise and defend Leon, they are actually taking steps to be able to provide their customers with products which are much more environmentally friendly than most. I would much rather read about these efforts, and as a member of the public support them, than buy a McDonalds burger.



I have had this question a lot since posting about the annual round of the world’s most sustainable brands on our Instagram page.

When I chat to people about sustainability and ask them what it means to them and instantly two answers come up: plastic pollution and waste. These are two exceptionally important items included in the world of sustainability and probably two that we, in the global north, can relate to most easily. We see plastic bags covering everything, we hear about how 70% of clothes bought online when returned to warehouses go straight to landfill. We can understand these problems because we can see them, we contribute to them, and we have it within our ability to change them.

But this isn’t where sustainability ends. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) looks at 17 areas of which need urgently addressing. The mutual benefit of working towards the achievement of all of these goals creates a brighter, fairer, cleaner, and greener world for everyone. For instance, when girls go to secondary education the following happens:

  • The lifetime earnings of girls dramatically increase
  • National growth rates rise
  • Child marriage rates decline
  • Child mortality rates fall
  • Maternal mortality rates fall

In obvious sustainability terms, one key knock on effect is reduction in population growth.

This highlight is just one sub-section of one of 17 Global Goals to help bring about positive change in the world to benefit the human race and the planet as a whole. Companies such as Unilever are at the forefront of corporations looking at sustainability in the round.

So, when we talk about what a brand is doing in terms of sustainability it will most likely go far above and beyond what we see when we buy clothes or food.


After all, “the perfect is the enemy of the good” – Voltaire.


I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts – do you agree, disagree, is there an important point that you think needs to be added to the debate? Add your comments to the Instagram post here, or feel free to email me


Written by Tammy, SoCo Founder



  • Read Oatly’s response to the backlash here
  • View Leon’s calculations here
  • Read the Globe Scan’s sustainable brands round up here
  • Learn about the UN's Sustainable Development Goals here



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