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Practicing Deep Sustainability: Cabot Creamery & Context-Based Sustainability Metrics

Here’s a question for you: If modern capitalist society is like a car headed over a cliff at 60 miles per hour, will decreasing our speed to 40 miles per hour save us from tumbling into catastrophe?

Uh, no.

Is Relative Efficiency Enough?

Yet for many corporate sustainability programs, a 30 percent cut in resource use (presumably while producing the same amount or more of their products) would be touted as a major step forward in their sustainability management. Such programs operate as if the increase in relative efficiency — applying the brakes to decrease their use or abuse of ecosystem resources (water, air, the carbon budget, arable land, etc) — is all the goal they need for them to be “sustainable.”
Let’s compare that goal to the classic definition of sustainability.

A lot of people say that “sustainability” is a fuzzy concept — one that’s been so overused and diluted that it’s practically meaningless — but it’s really quite simple. Wikipedia says,

"Sustainability is ... the responsible management of resource use," "encompasses the concept of stewardship," and "is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic and social dimensions."

Merriam-Webster is more succinct:

"of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged."

So the common corporate mode of sustainability management begs two questions:

  1. Is it doing enough to actually be sustainable?
  2. What yardstick is being used?

In other words, are sustainability metrics really telling companies what they need to know?

Cabot Goes From Naïve To Questioning

Five years ago, it was a question Cabot Creamery decided it wanted to answer. Cabot is a cooperative — its 1200 farmer-owners supply the milk for the cheese the company’s four creameries churn out. The impetus to answer the above question came from a change in the way Cabot’s customers and other stakeholders started asking about the cooperative’s stance on sustainability.

Cabot’s sustainability director Jed Davis told CSRwire: “When we first started our sustainability program, we were used to getting the question, ‘Cabot, are you sustainable?’ And we defaulted to the answer, ‘We're a cooperative.’”

In other words, the company was resting on its laurels as a virtuous business model that, moreover, was composed of hundreds of family farms working the land. It’s a bucolic picture — but it didn’t really answer the question."

Then the company started hearing something different: “Customers started asking, ‘What is your sustainability program?’ That’s when we realized we had been a little naïve in how we were addressing that — that there was something more programmatic than what we had been doing.”

Context-Based Sustainability

For help, the company turned to sustainability consultant Mark McElroy. He told Cabot about an approach that aims to implement the core meaning of sustainability — preserving the resources a company uses for the long term — called context-based sustainability. McElroy defines the approach as one that “explicitly takes local context into account when attempting to measure, manage or report the sustainability performance of an organization.”

The “context” is the social and environmental conditions that a company's operations impact, not just in the present but into the future.

The motto Cabot follows with the context-based approach is, “Living within our means and ensuring the means to live.”

Context-Based Sustainability: Preserving Water Resources

For a creamery operation, water resources are one of the most critical areas of impact, so what really sold Cabot Creamery on context-based sustainability was when McElroy spelled out what it would mean for the company’s sustainable management of its water use.
“There's a fair amount of water use going on to run the operations of a creamery,” McElroy told CSRwire. “When it comes to managing the sustainability of any of those facilities, one of many issues is the rate at which water resources are used and whether it's sustainable. The only way to answer that question is to look at the availability of water resources at the location or watershed where that plant is located. The geography of the area, the volume of precipitation in the watershed, the number of other people or uses that are relying on the same water resources — all of that local information is highly relevant, contextually relevant.”

“It's possible that we could be reducing our water each year and still be far away from what would be sustainable in our particular watershed for, let's say, the next couple of generations,” Davis explained. “So, that notion that if you just look at the measurements of what we are doing and don't tie it back to reality in the ground in terms of resources that are available or the social investments that are necessary, then you've answered some questions but you haven't answered the question of 'are you sustainable?'”

Cabot is developing context-based metrics related to water use for all aspects of the dairy industry. “We would like to drive some continuous improvement in the realm of sustainability in both our own facilities and our farms,” Davis told CSRwire.

“So we're developing some tools that any one of our members could use to get a snapshot of where they are on some key measures of sustainability.”

Context-Based Sustainability Coherent With Cooperative Enterprise

While the context-based sustainability method is applicable to any business, it holds particular resonance for Jed Davis because of its coherence with the cooperative enterprise model.

Cabot butter

“Cooperatives are about communities,” Davis says. “They owe their existence to the communities in which they operate. That's true for all business, but there's a keen interest and awareness toward giving back to our communities.”

It’s a worthy notion to contemplate at a time when controversy rages over whether businesses “build it” on their own —  or whether they are dependent on the social and environmental capital that surrounds them. Context-based sustainability says, not only don’t they “build it” on their own  they are responsible for helping maintain the world in which they are embedded, so that others may “build it” way into the future.

This article originally appeared in CSRwire on August 30, 2012.


An award-winning journalist, Francesca is cofounder of Sea Change Media. She produced the Sea Change Radio's series, Back to The Future, and co-produced the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility's podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca's work has appeared… [Read more about Francesca Rheannon]


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