The Invisible Good or: Fun with Sustainability II

The Invisible Good or: Fun with Sustainability II
Free range chicken (Photo © Suemack | Dreamstime.com)
Amy Hinman
April 17, 2014

I once spent a brief stint working at a certain bakery-café (which will be referred to as a “bakery-café" to ensure no feelings are hurt) that also served soups, salads, and sandwiches. My job on the line was to prepare these lunch items. The chicken used in the salads and sandwiches was labeled “Antibiotic Free,” and even on the call screens was denoted as “ABF CHX.” A nationwide restaurant chain that cares about healthy chicken? Was it too good to be true? So I asked my manager — a sharp, short woman who only thought sarcasm was funny when she was using it — about this chicken for do-gooders.

“Yeahh,” she said, drawing out the end of the word as if I might not understand it otherwise, “this bakery-café doesn’t use any antibiotics in any of their chicken. Pretty neattt, right?”

I nodded. “So, where does the chicken come from? How does the bakery-café decide where to source from, are the farms local, or — ” my manager cut me off.

“Amy. The chicken is Antibiotic Free. If anyone asks that’s what you tell them. It’s Antibiotic Free Chicken.”

“Yes, and I was just wondering, because a customer might ask if — ”

“Guests. They’re Guests, not customers.”

I would assume other "Guests" at this particular bakery-café think the same things I did upon initially discovering that the chicken wasn’t pumped full of drugs: it’s time to rejoice! But when I asked questions, even simple questions that should have had an answer, I was met with the reality that corporations might be more interested in the image of sustainability than sustainability itself.

Amy the Idealist, apron-clad and covered in mayo, was sad and disappointed at the apparent lack of heart. What once felt like an achievement for the nationwide chain suddenly became shallow, an invisible buzzword that both the staff and diners trusted as something truly good. Months later, after I quit, Amy the Realist appreciated the small step that the bakery-café took to do something beneficial, regardless of motivation.

The entire corporate system is full of complexities; complete adherence to energy emissions or ABF labeling seems barely feasible at best, and the regulation of such equally challenging.

In the corporate world, sustainability is made up of credits and guidelines that trade on differing levels of good. Corporations can afford to do this because of their size. But do tangible strides toward a less-polluted future require the amenities, resources, and funds that being a large corporation allow for? The bakery-café, like many companies, can afford to advertise their do-gooding. However, these big-corporation practices, complete with catchy slogans, are likely to become mere buzzwords.

Carbon credits, for example, don't physically exist, but they are bought and sold regularly, and they keep large companies from emitting more carbon credits than they’ve purchased — each credit being equal to about a ton of greenhouse gases. A company’s estimated carbon output is measured, and credits are purchased accordingly.

The revenue from the purchased credits goes toward some sort of “offset,” a sponsored project like a clean, durable water filter or source that eliminates some form of carbon emissions in another part of the world. This reduction “balances out” the effects that the private jets, coffee pots, and corporate cars have on the environment. Even with the balances, a solar panel or water filter doesn’t negate the fact that corporate refuse goes into landfills. These resources are worthy investments, but as good as “carbon credits” sound, they don’t erase waste.

Carbon credits are tricky. Corporations will likely always create waste and try to hide it. But for companies that are really trying to lighten the load they place on the earth — and even those that only care for the image carbon credits give them — I don’t think we can really be so harsh. The efforts might come from a place of greed, but at least they’re coming. The danger arises if we believe that because we’ve offset our trash with clean water for an African village, then our trash doesn’t count anymore.

Even the most delicate earth-dwellers leave some kind of trace. Corporate sustainability has sold us on the concepts of ABF CHX, carbon credits, and erased tracks. But the corporate model is just that: corporate. Measuring individual actions only in purchased negatives is asking for failure. There is more to sustainability than simple avoidance. So instead of only counting negatives — shutting off the lights to reduce energy waste, riding your bike to save gas, opening a window instead of turning on a fan — let’s start adding up the positives. Because it shouldn’t be about what we aren't doing with our actions, it should be about what we are doing with them.


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