The Integrity of Sustainability

I’m not a huge follower of the meme craze. Pictures with a very unassociated caption are funny and all, but at the end of the day, I struggle to relate to a muppet wearing a black hood. Despite my unpopular meme opinions, I cannot ignore the friends who constantly repost and comment on those witty-captioned images.

And then this happened.

171009 Sustainable Integrity Meme 1
Image taken from Make Cornell Meme Again Facebook page. September 25, 2017.

If you’re anything like me, you would probably ignore the elements of this photo once you observed they were placed on a cartesian plane. But look closely. In the upper, mid-left (quadrant II if you made it through sixth grade pre-algebra), there is a little blurb that reads “Environmental and Sustainability Sciences.”

Folks, that’s my major.

If you take a closer look at the axis labels, you’ll read that us Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (ESS, for short) majors, are considered nice and dumb. And, being the glass half full kind of gal I am, I can usually overlook the negative aspects of any definition.

Except this one.

Now I recognize that alluding to my disinterest in math may have not set me up in the best way to defend myself, but I think that this meme (of all things) epitomizes the perceived relevance of sustainability.

Given the focus of this blog, you know my opinion on all things environmental. But perhaps I am in the minority. Perhaps all those who deem sustainability relevant do so in a partial manner, seeking to evaluate sustainability as a separate sphere of broader goals.

This partition of sustainability from the rest of our modern, and dare I say advanced, way of life hinders the integrity of all that sustainability is and seeks to achieve. 

So today I want to discuss what the integrity of sustainability is by first defining it, understanding its modern context, and discussing some of its manifestations through three separate evaluations in the form of case studies. So let’s dive in.

171009 Integrity 2
Fair and Sustainable? What does that all mean. Picture taken at The Shop, Ithaca, 2017. 

As usual, let’s start by defining key terms. Sustainability is the ability to be maintained, as we have discussed before. But let’s nuance that definition more. On this blog, I focus on sustainability in terms of the natural environment. Although experts are still seeking an exact definition (a process criticized by a guest lecturer of my natural resources class), sustainability is a human-centered goal, seeking to both preserve what already exists while also designing new technologies that can both accommodate modern human values and ecological needs. The reason that sustainability is such a hot topic right now is its direct competition with status quo human activities, which have resulted in climate change, pollution, ecosystem degradation, human illness, the disturbance of native lifestyles, and more.

In the past decade, sustainability has become generally more accepted from a corporate and political standpoint (all of that unraveling currently, but Mr. Trump has no place on this blog, or in any practical discussion for that matter)*. In corporations, executives realize, or at least claim to realize, the financial benefits of adopting sustainability into corporate strategy. This is partially encouraged by political movement, which has, through a series of legislative experiments, incentivized the private sector through capital rewards after successful incorporation of sustainable company plans. Therefore, the current language of sustainability in both private and public sectors is one heavily rooted in money. 

*As a note, the case studies discussed ignore Mr. Trump’s policies. Any 11 year old can read about his decisions and recognize their lack of integrity, and therefore giving those policies any more attention seems pointless and ineffective.

On the other hand, integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Again, this definition falls short of the nuance we need. In the context of sustainability, integrity means honoring the environmental goals that actors set, regardless if actors are individuals, corporate executives, or legal representatives. Integrity also means defining clear intention before pursuing sustainability, explaining the rationale and intention of a goal in order to establish a broader philosophy of sustainability, rather than a partial, tangible goal unable of future replication.

These are two big words whose vernacular ramifications impact plants and animals alike (humans included!). Sustainability is a word that is easily tossed around everywhere from corporate plans to grocery stores to Instagram accounts. Likewise, integrity is a concept many have heard of but few have paid attention to. Between “academic integrity,” physical integrity, and integration (because, as much as I dislike math, its relevance cannot be ignored), integrity becomes a really stretched concept.

Here, I seek to narrow the concept of integrity by focusing its scope to sustainability, and specifically sustainability in terms of trade and money. Financial integrity is the one nuance of integrity that does not change amidst sphere, and therefore is one of the most important foundations of sustainable integrity. In order to better explain this like between financial integrity and sustainability, take a look at this infographic:

Money's Path to Sustainability PNG
This is daunting. I explain it in the paragraph below. Adventurously Organic 2017.
  • Boxes with black frame= actors
  • Central circle= sustainability (generally)
  • Arrows= direction of flow of money from actor to actor
  • Light pink boxes= form of money from actor to actor
  • Dark pink boxes= form of money from actor to sustainability
  • Notes:
    • Arrows imply transitivity
    • Size of box denotes power of actor
    • Boxes that are not clearly linked to an arrow are usually to the right, or slightly beneath arrow of reference

While doing research for this post, I found a dearth of maps tracing money around sustainability. This lack of direction, information, and transparency poses a huge threat to the integrity of sustainability, which is why I have created a (still in progress) map. In the next section of this discussion, we will analyze three separate cases of sustainable integrity.

The sustainable integrity that I refer to is rooted in the trade routes of the map above, where the money that travels goes from destination to destination with honorable intention for the preservation of the natural environment. 

*Additionally, all of the cases I analyze are in the context of a capitalist system.

**Disclaimer: In presenting these cases, I do not intend to align with any political leaning. By generalizing integrity into three main cases, it can be easy to generalize corporations as “evil” and small, grassroots organizations as “righteous.” However, this generalization is the opposite of my intention. Instead, I hope that each case can be read as what it is- a specific case. The cases are not a result of the size of the actor, but the actions (and deviations from the original intentions) of the actor.

Case Number One – I argue: no integrity

DuPont’s Climate Policy and Initiatives

Image taken from DuPont Products.

DuPont is a chemical, materials, and agriculture engineering company based in the United States. As one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world, DuPont plays a large role in the global economy, and influences both new and old corporate structures and organizations. Being a sizable company, DuPont has relationships with other fortune 500 companies (think Monsanto, Unilever, Coca Cola, etc.) and frequently graduates leaders of the company to various governmental departments (think USDA, Department of Energy, etc.).

In the past 20 years, DuPont has incorporated sustainability into its core values, broadcasting sustainability measures and annual reports while also supporting different educational opportunities that umbrella sustainability projects. From a quick glance at the website and some general news articles, DuPont seems like the ultimate corporate sustainability machine. Phrasing its efforts to “find science-enabled, sustainable solutions for our customers, always managing our businesses to protect the environment and preserve the earth’s natural resources,” DuPont makes itself sound like the company that does it all. Using general language helps that cause, especially for the consumers who are unwilling to read every other report present on the website.

But DuPont’s broadcasting of values and intentions does not align with the company’s actions. The historical implications of DuPont’s foundation renders it a friend to increased plastic use, pharmaceutical production, and sand mining, to name a few. And each of those industries have corollary environmental degradation issues that have failed to receive political attention. Can this failure of political dominance be attributed to DuPont’s (and its friends’) presence in the government? I think there is significant reason to believe so.

I could go on for hours (another 6000 words, say) on all of the ways that DuPont falls short of the most basic definition of integrity. Those words would involve the contradictions between the industries DuPont supports, government policies DuPont has made possible, and leadership goals of those who reshape the language of biotechnology to be self-serving rather than science-serving. And that would only be half of such a discussion. But because we have more points to get to, and because all of you can scour the DuPont website on your own time, let’s cut to the chase.

I argue that DuPont is a case of no integrity because of the polarity between DuPont’s stated intentions and reported actions (and even those have been skewed by DuPont’s media and government presence). In a perfect world, I would love to believe that the paper on sustainability that I submitted to DuPont was taken into account. I would love to think that when DuPont discusses a sustainable future, increased plastic production, rather than a search for a more renewable method of polymerization, is not part of that vision. I would love to read every report without doubts about the responsibilities Dupont has to its more unfriendly allies to continue using seeds that harm local farmers. And I would love to think that all of the information DuPont includes comes from a desire to improve the environment, rather than increase profit and stock index by a given percentage each year. But simply reading between the lines proves otherwise.

Political Cartoon from the Cagle Post, 2011. 

Case Number Two – I argue: semi integrity

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Michael Pollan is an American author who revolutionized the layman understanding of sustainable agriculture. His publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma sparked a national discussion on how the way we grow things is linked to our health, environment, and general happiness. You can read more history about and critical reception to the book here.

Image retrieved from

The publication of this book was as much of a personal investment as it was a public one. As a journalist, Pollan had to spend both time (years) and money (hundreds of thousands of American dollars) to obtain enough information, literary support, and public interest to make the book a possibility. Pollan’s research exemplifies the importance of reaching beyond status quo writing. He evaluated both conservative and liberal opinions of the farmers he interviewed in a way that did not diminish their words, but rather clarified the history and present reactions to agriculture. By striving for honorable journalistic practices, Pollan improved the public’s awareness of the problems of American agriculture without posing blame on any specific source. In the meantime, this public, journalistic integrity was accompanied with personal reward. Post-publication of the national bestseller, Pollan became the topic of almost all semi-liberal American households. He benefited from features in documentaries, increased talks (including one recently at, in my humble opinion, the best school in America), and upward mobility in literary networking fields. Indeed, Pollan had to work for these benefits. However, in researching and arguing for something of public benefit, Pollan received his personal rewards.

In terms of impact, The Omnivore’s Dilemma resonated with both scientists and politicians alike. Written in language understandable by all, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a significant literary achievement in terms of bridging the gap between two spheres of progress with intensely different jargon. Scientists interested in sustainability had a model of communication quite different from traditional scientific journals, while politicians were exposed to more scientific detail than perhaps they were used to. In going forward, both scientists and politicians could reference The Omnivore’s Dilemma with shared, uniform understanding. And Michael Pollan’s personal fame only made him more available, and arguably invaluable, to this unification process.

Given the spheres of investment and impact, I argue that the publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a case of semi-integrity. Michael Pollan achieved at making a form of sustainability, specifically agriculture, relevant to the masses. His intention to delve into journalism that had public benefit and scientific and political impact is one of integrity. And although I find nothing wrong with personal benefit, Pollan’s personal investment and subsequent personal furthering of career required a diversion of public attention from the actual book to the man who wrote it. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was not as selfless as it reads, but remained relevant to the general, selfless goals of sustainability.

Case Number Three – I argue: true integrity

Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Science Barge

Image retrieved from Groundwork Hudson Valley Science Barge Website.

Groundwork Hudson Valley is a non-profit organization that seeks to benefit low-income communities of the Hudson Valley region in New York through sustainability measures. The Science Barge is one of their projects, located in Yonkers, New York, that I believe fulfills this goal incredibly well. I first visited the Science Barge (SB, for short) when I was 13 years old. After curiously staring at the floating wooden structure on the river, I asked my family if we could take a post-brunch trip aboard to see what “Science” was being presented. That was my first experience with hydroponics, a modern agriculture system that has revolutionized urban farming and dependence on national transportation.

Two years later, after a peer in my french class explained how SB offered volunteering options, I signed up. After just a few hours on the barge, I learned about the intentions, funding, and subsequent actions of a project that was so much better than I could have imagined. The intentions of SB are more specific than Groundwork Hudson Valley’s overarching goals. SB strives to create a model of self-sufficiency energetically and agriculturally, while also serving as an education center for the local community. As a non-profit, all funds come from local investors, donations, and fellowship grants. When first established, SB had a difficult time obtaining funds. However, as SB started to grow, it managed the little money it had so well, and reaped incredible sustainable benefits, so that increased funding flooded the sustainable boat. I was most surprised to learn that the Barge was a model for roof top gardens in New York City, and that building owners of rising neighborhoods like the West Village in Manhattan or Greenpoint in Brooklyn actually referred to SB when designing urban farms. Furthermore, SB is energetically neutral. 95% of its energy is solar powered or wind powered, and the remaining 5% is from a generator that uses old frying oil from local fast food joints. That generator is only used in extreme cases. Additionally, all of the water used to power hydroponics is from rain, and is recycled throughout the operation, rather than leaked into the Hudson River. All of the rocks used for hydroponics also come from recycled rock product from local New York Communities, and there is even an aquaponics operation for the parts of plants inedible to humans but digestible for fish. This system of cycles and self-reliance is further improved by explanations and lesson offerings for local schools and families to come and learn. While working as a tour guide, I noticed how much fun kids had by explaining the water cycle, smelling purple basil, or learning the difference between plant biomasses. To cultivate such an intense and excitable curiosity about nature in children is something that few people, especially in a context of suburban America, can do. And yet, with minimal funds, SB does it in a way that both exemplifies the tenets of sustainability and executes original intention.

I argue that SB is a case of true integrity because the intentions of energetic and agricultural self-sufficiency, education, and urban modeling are never sacrificed for the money that is available. As a non-profit, SB relies on volunteers, and those volunteers are constantly reminded of why they are there, and how they can make that why a reality. The intention of serving the public is never compromised by a lack of funds, despite the fact that SB’s intention is partially reliant on the concept of money.

Image retrieved from Groundwork Hudson Valley News. (Also that is Bob- an amazing boss!!)

Each of these cases represents a manifestation of integrity (or lack thereof) in sustainability. When revisiting the goal of today’s post, understanding how the “partition of sustainability from the rest of our modern, and dare I say advanced, way of life hinders the integrity of all that sustainability is and seeks to achieve,” we must understand how each fraction of integrity either supports or dismantles sustainable progress.

Clearly, the case of no integrity in DuPont’s corporate actions hinders sustainability. DuPont broadcasts fallacious sustainability goals, allowing the public to buy into the concept of sustainability without following the ramifications of DuPont’s corporate decisions. A lack of transparency encourages ambiguity amongst consumer and investor understanding of sustainability, muddling DuPont’s broader focus of economic gain over environmental protection.

On the other hand, the cases of semi-integrity in Michael Pollan’s publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and true integrity at Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Science Barge serve the progress of sustainability, albeit in different ways. The example of Michael Pollan’s journalism is relevant because it shows how projects directed for public and personal benefit do not detract from the integrity of sustainability. Despite financially profiting from the book, Michael Pollan encouraged public awareness and subsequent action to increase the presence of sustainable values in agriculture. Likewise, the Science Barge completely honors the environment and values of sustainability, rarely deviating from original intention. Although there are varying degrees of integrity, both cases show that enough integrity will lead to honest work in sustainability, rather than using sustainability as an acceptable mask for self-serving projects.

Image retrieved from Del.M blog.

However, these examples do little to understand why integrity is so easily lost in the context of sustainability. Why, after years of political debate on the proper incorporation of sustainability into a capitalist economy, is there still a desire to use sustainability as a facade for unchanged goals? Is there a lack of friction between the forces of honesty and economic gain, and why is sustainability so many times at the forefront of this dissonance?

These are questions that, although answerable, have few practical approaches to tangible response. What cannot be changed about sustainability is that it is rooted in money (as clearly observed in the map earlier in this post), and that without financial integrity, the true goals of sustainability can be easily dismantled by any actor feeding into its goals. Our responsibility is therefore more than understanding the relationships between money and sustainability, but encouraging their honesty.

Practically, this looks like reading between the lines, looking for information that is missed, understanding how that missed information impacts specific spheres of the environment, and then using that information to be vocal and demand change. 

Integrity will always be a vague concept because it demands a higher philosophical awareness between intention and action. Sustainability is still a vague concept because its vast lack of respect. Both concepts are difficult to relate to, but similar to the memes I rarely find humor in, there are exceptions. If something disturbs you (and it does not have to be academic placement on a cartesian plane), speak about it. If you identify dissonance between intention and action, call it out. Integrity manifests itself everywhere, and until we legitimize its presence, the facades of movements will hinder complete, unadulterated progress.

Image retrieved from Pinterest.

*All opinions are my own. I have received no form of incentive for anything written or broadcasted here. I also may accentuate the word opinion, supported by fact, but ultimately personal opinion.


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