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The Three Pillars of Smart Sustainability

By: Jeb Gleason-Allured, Editor
Posted: February 27, 2009

Norman Bourlag—agronomist, Nobel laureate and founder of the “green revolution”—has spent the last decade and more imploring the world to take a clear-eyed view of agricultural productivity, particularly as it relates to organics. (Read an in-depth talk with Bourlag at reason.com) While he doesn’t deplore organic farming, Bourlag does stress that the mechanics of such a growing system can have unintended, ecologically disastrous effects. For instance, he estimates that all of the available organic manure in the world could help feed just about 4 billion people. In addition, clearing lands for organic and natural crops and nitrogen-bearing livestock could potentially decimate already threatened forests.

Yet Bourlag’s points are far from common knowledge among consumers and even some manufacturers. The result is that the consumer continues to demand “safer and greener” organic products, customer companies place high value on launching organic lines, and the flavor and fragrance industry labors to manage and meet the demand. Is this sustainable?

Such was the tone of Firmenich global sustainable development director Boet Brinkgreve’s nuanced presentation before Centifolia's 7th International Congress on perfumery and natural raw materials. “We want to make sure the next generation has what we have now,” he said.

Brinkgreve noted perhaps the direct aspect of sustainability for all industries: the booming world population. “It’s only getting worse,” he said. Referring to a graph, he explained, “In 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people. The issue is that the less-developed countries are growing the most. For that reason, there will probably not be enough to eat. I think that’s a real sustainability issue. We can talk about luxury products, but not being able to eat is [obviously] worse.” The food-scarcity issue, he continued, will increase pressure on ecosystems, which is bad news for the flavor and fragrance industry because, in the larger balance, essential oil-bearing crops will always lose out to food crops. “We have to find solutions for this above anything else.”

But how do consumers view sustainability, and what do they want? Brinkgreve outlined three tiers of consumer priorities:

  • Tier 1, self: What’s in it for me? How can I protect my overall health and well-being? How can I have a clear environmental and social conscience?
  • Tier 2, loved ones: How can I make sure my family is protected?
  • Tier 3, global: What can we do for the rest of the world?