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Sustainability: Going Beyond the Buzzword, Part One

Cultivating Change: Noble West’s Sustainability Series

In a new, four-part series, we’ll be exploring sustainability’s evolution in the food and agriculture sector. Come along as we cover everything from conservation and connection to preservation and best practices.

The Evolving Meaning of Sustainability

Sustainability: it’s more than just a buzzword. The definition of sustainability has shifted over time—growing to encompass a broader set of economic, environmental and social standards. Although indigenous cultures around the world have long practiced honoring the land that they live on, sustainability did not capture the attention of the pop culture sphere until the early 20th century. Sustainability entered the Western ethos as a derivative of conservation and preservation movements—stemming from efforts to protect natural resources and public green spaces. 

During the 1970s—via the environmentalism movement that counter-cultural activists made mainstream—sustainability became synonymous with mitigating pollution and deforestation. So while bell bottoms and disco were all the rage, the public was also increasingly interested in protecting the planet.

The 1987 Brundtland Report, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development (now the Brundtland Commission), was a turning point in the public perception of sustainability. The piece introduced the idea of present-day sustainable development as a way of ensuring stability for future generations, eventually leading to the creation of the 1994 Triple Bottom Line that challenged businesses to balance the “three P’s”: the profit, the people and the planet. 

The 2015 adoption of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) took the principles of the Triple Bottom Line beyond business—issuing a universal call to action in order to ensure peace, prosperity and a protected planet by 2030. The 17 SDGs frame sustainability as an interconnected practice, where progress in one sector leads to progress in another. At Noble West, we’re proud to be part of that progress in the food and agriculture sector.

Today, sustainable practices are at the forefront of creating a more resilient food system. The industry’s link to conversations about resource conservation, land protection and environmental policy are just the beginning of considerations and pressures agribusinesses face when it comes to becoming more sustainable. These pressing sustainability challenges require creative solutions—from sharing more while wasting less to building business while coping with climate change. 

But sustainability isn’t just about the planet—it’s about the profit, the people and resilience of the business as well. The public tends to perceive sustainability as a planet-focused effort. However, reforms must be holistic in order to provoke sustainable change. In our minds, effective sustainability practices must encompass a range of political, social and economic issues alongside environmental concerns.

The Complexity of Sustainable Choices

Often used as an umbrella term for “environmentally friendly practices,” sustainability has skyrocketed in popularity due to the rise of the conscious consumer. Our planet cannot support our current rates of consumption without large-scale reforms—and the general consensus is that sustainable behaviors and practices are at the core of the solution.

According to the UN, 93% of the world’s 250 largest companies report on their sustainable practices. However, every company’s pursuit of change follows a different path because sustainability is inherently subjective. In order to shape and embrace sustainable practices, businesses must define their priorities as they look toward a more progressive future. At Noble West, our priority is to support and amplify businesses that are engaged in holistically sustainable practices in the present so that the future can be a bit brighter.

Within food and ag, sweeping reforms have led to unprecedented changes in practice. From resource regulation to innovative technology, the industry has evolved alongside the sustainability movement. And as the food system continues to grow, the category will have to adapt to meet new demands.

Switching to sustainable practices is challenging—albeit rewarding. Consumers have come to expect companies to prioritize sustainability, while stakeholders tend to prioritize company performance. Complex supply chains are sensitive to system changes, and sustainable choices can have both positive and negative ripple effects. “Difficult” doesn’t even begin to describe the decisions that businesses face.

Pseudo-sustainability is easy to see through, and we’re not afraid to talk about it. Food and agriculture businesses that make sustainability a core tenet of their work tend to build stronger relationships with consumers and stakeholders. And although making the shift to sustainable practices inevitably involves sacrifice, work that supports a stronger food system is always worthwhile.

There is so much more to unpack about this complex topic. Stay tuned for our thoughts, theories and hot takes on the good, the bad and the valuable—from sustainable farming solutions to ethical labor practices.