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Going Green(ish)

The How and Why of Adopting Sustainable Practices

They’re in our daily conversations, blending into the ambient hum of consumer discourse. Terms like “sustainable development,” “green,” “eco-friendly,” “carbon footprint,” “fair trade,” and “environmental impact” are scrawled across the items in our shopping cart, from laundry detergent to our morning cup of coffee, adding to our collective confusion, as well as our general sense of information overload. The barrage of buzzwords often raises skepticism: Are these promises genuine, or simply a facade to funnel our finances upward? It’s critical to pierce through this veneer of corporate greenwashing to grasp the gravity of genuine environmental issues.

Fact: The planet is in peril—and its problems stretch well beyond the climate crisis, though everything is interconnected. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation—the troubles are legion, and they aren’t going away. This isn’t a partisan statement. It’s simply reality. As theses compounding crises bring us increasingly closer to a moment of reckoning for our species, it’s important that we ask ourselves what we can do to help create a better future. This industry in particular is uniquely rooted in a legacy of countercultural values that espoused environmentalism, organic cultivation, and sustainable living.  The players owe it to themselves, their forebears—and to the mother of all mothers, Madam Earth—to introspectively examine the practices of the industry and honestly commit to their improvement.

Fact: The planet is in peril—and its problems stretch well beyond the climate crisis, though everything is interconnected. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation—the troubles are legion, and they aren’t going away. This isn’t a partisan statement. It’s simply reality.

A Few Bits of Trivia to Help You Sound Smarter at Parties

nce upon a time in Germany, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a mining administrator and tax accountant with a possible penchant for tree-hugging (though history remains silent on this), made a groundbreaking contribution. In 1713, he penned “Sylvicultura Oeconomica,” a book tackling the then pressing issues of deforestation and timber shortages that were jeopardizing local industries.

His pioneering work introduced the concept of “nachhaltende nutzung,” or “sustainable use,” championing the idea that forests should be managed in such a way that trees are harvested no faster than they can regenerate. Not rocket science, you’d think, and you’d be correct, but keep in mind that in the early 18th Century, practicing rocket science would have likely gotten you burned at the stake. Obvious though the concept may seem (the harvesting thing, not rocket science) it was only then that the notion of sustainability made it in the lexicon of the so-called developed world. It’s important to note that this was a revelation only for the “developed world,” as indigenous communities across the globe had figured this one out for time immemorial. Sometimes the obvious is elusive.

Fast forward a few centuries to the late 1980s when the global community, AKA our world leaders, finally acknowledged the unsustainable pace of human consumption in relation to the planet’s ability to replenish its resources. This awakening was crystallized in the acclaimed Brundtland report, which popularized the term “Sustainable Development,” defining it as a form of development that satisfies our current needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own. To grossly oversimplify, the idea emphasizes the importance of not being a selfish asshole; Other people, notably, future generations will need resources too, so save some for them. Puff, puff, pass, as it were.

Feeling overwhelmed yet? Don’t worry; there won’t be a quiz. No one is judging you besides Karen, and Karen judges everyone. 

Take a deep breath as you absorb the knowledge shared, and ponder the wise words of Maya Angelou: “You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you have been.” So where were we?

An Introduction to Corporate Social Responsibility

Once upon a time (as in, the mid-20th Century) walked this earth the almost famous Howard R. Bowen, an American economist and educator who made it into our history books, as well as Wikipedia as the father of Corporate Social Responsibility, AKA CSR—because who doesn’t love acronyms? While no teenager has never had a poster of Bowen hanging on their bedroom wall, the man’s contribution to making the world a better place cannot be overlooked—plus, the knowledge of his existence can be the difference between winning or losing at Trivial Pursuit, so . . . you’re welcome.

Bowen posited that business leaders have responsibilities to society that extend beyond making profits for shareholders. Bowen’s ideas were revolutionary at the time because they challenged the traditional view that a business’s sole purpose was to generate profit for its owners or shareholders. Instead, he introduced the notion that companies are integral parts of the larger social system and, as such, should act in ways that benefit society. This concept has since been expanded upon and incorporated into various business practices, leading to initiatives focused on environmental sustainability, ethical labor practices, and community engagement, among others.

But I am just a small business owner; I don’t have shareholders, you might think. Well, there is no such thing as too small to make a difference. Think of Sam Gamgee. Very likely, you are sponsoring your local youth baseball team, or maybe supporting your staff to volunteer in your community soup kitchen. Or maybe you care enough to recycle and offer reusable bags to your customers? Congratulations, you are already a proud member of Team CSR.

Sustainability in Retail

While sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR)—see sidebar—wear many hats and even boots, their applications to the retail space can be simplified to a handful of concepts: sustainable supply chain management, packaging, and ethical manufacturing processes. In a nutshell, here is what they mean and why they are challenging sustainability:

  • Supply Chain

    This encompasses the entire process from design and manufacturing to distribution and retail. It involves material sourcing, production, quality testing, packaging, and delivery and presents significant challenges when it comes to sustainability, making its management a highly specialized profession. Among them are regulatory inconsistencies that complicate standardization, making it difficult for manufacturers to do the right thing, energy-intensive practices and reliance on non-biodegradable materials.

  • Packaging

    In 2018, the United States produced 35.7 million tons of plastic, which constituted 12.2% of all municipal solid waste. A significant portion, over 14.5 million tons, originated from packaging relevant to the retail industry, such as bags, sacks, and wraps (EPA, 2024).  Despite this considerable output, recycling rates were notably low—and that’s putting in nicely. In reality, plastic recycling has been an abject failure. While a bottle of plastic can look harmless, the impact of plastic pollution should keep you up at night. Plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, accumulating in landfills and natural habitats. They break down into microplastics, which contaminate water bodies and soil, entering the food chain and posing health risks to animals and humans.

  • Ethical Manufacturing Process

    Products and accessories that are manufactured overseas where labor standards and environmental regulations may be lax. Regions such as South and Southeast Asia have been highlighted in various reports labor violations, such as child labor or unfair wages

Simple Steps: Three Things You Can do Right Now to Save the World

Beyond what you probably already do from the kindness of your heart such as supporting your community little leagues, treating your employees with kindness and really really trying to recycle these boxes piling in the backroom, there are a few things you can do to help our industry get a sustainable transformational makeover.

Flex that purchasing power

As a retailer or distributor, leveraging your purchasing power is key to driving sustainability in the industry. The market will shift towards sustainability when consumer demand aligns with eco-friendly practices. By choosing manufacturers that shun child labor, use biodegradable materials, minimize packaging, and offer refillable products, you signal the need for change. With large corporations now entering the market, the opportunity for impactful change is significant, as these entities can adopt sustainable practices while maintaining profitability.

Higher Education

Three-quarters of Americans value sustainability when shopping, reflecting a strong preference for environmentally responsible products (IPSOS, 2024). This indicates a willingness to invest more in sustainable goods and an interest in the practices of the companies behind them. Consider highlighting eco-friendly options in your store and engaging with customers about the benefits of supporting sustainable brands to facilitate informed choices.

Advocacy

Smoke shop retailers can champion public health and environmental sustainability by educating customers on eco-conscious purchases through in-store and online engagement, supporting green initiatives financially and through partnerships, and advocating for industry regulations that bolster environmental protection and sustainable business operations.

A Note on “Greenwashing”

The surge in consumer demand for sustainable products has led to a troubling trend where some businesses falsely claim environmental or social responsibility as a marketing ploy. This deceptive practice, known as “greenwashing,” aimed at appealing to eco-conscious consumers, often involves overstating or fabricating their green initiatives. Make sure to do your due diligence and research brands, looking for third-party certifications and transparency in sustainability reports.

About the Author:

Sofia Noillif  is an experienced microbiologist and natural resource management specialist who holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and ten years of professional experience.

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