Why it’s not technology that will transform the fight for sustainability

This article was published on Food Logistics in February 2021

For years corporations have seen sustainability as a liability but thanks to cultural, social and political transformation, circumstances have changed. We are now seeing organisations developing sustainability strategies placing these at the core of companies but these efforts are not enough.

The fight for sustainability depends on organisations as much as it depends on society. There is a need for better understanding and communication between the two parts to come together to create consensus and take action. In this article, we will analyse how technology such as satellite imaging or radar technology has become available for all and it is time to combine it with social activities to make our planet more sustainable.

Corporations and society: sustainability starts in the supermarket

Corporations, especially large multinationals, tend to view themselves as outside of society, not as part of society. Northern hemisphere one-directional marketing machines, focused on maximising profits with completely disconnected Southern hemisphere low cost production partners.

But there is a link between corporations and people: the market. Producers and consumers communicate with each other through the market. For example, the supermarket. When I was a kid, there was only one kind of peanut butter in the supermarket. Then, somewhere in the 90s, there was a revolution: there was normal peanut butter and peanut butter with chunks. Suddenly there was a choice.

In this case, this choice was initiated by the producers. The need to differentiate from competitors and increase market share. Nowadays, when I go to the supermarket, there are 20 kinds of peanut butter. All kinds of mixes, flavours and the ones with the green cap; sustainably produced peanut butter.

People don’t feel comfortable anymore using unsustainably produced goods. That goes for peanut butter but also for shoes, shampoo and clothing. But how do you know if goods are produced sustainably? This is the problem corporations are starting to realise they should solve. If they want to keep market share, they cannot continue using unsustainable production methods or source from unsustainable producers.

But those corporations find themselves in complex, global commodity supply chains where there is a huge information gap between what happens on the ground (e.g. deforestation driven bij palm oil production) and what is recorded in (accounting) records in supply chains. And ultimately consumers that buy products made from these commodities.

Companies realise sustainability is becoming an asset and that they need reliable, consistent and up-to-date information to communicate about that with consumers. Technology is the place where they look for that information.

Corporations and technology: satellites don’t make decisions, humans do

Corporations like technology. Because technology is (becoming) a commodity which you can procure. And technology provides insights. Or so corporations seem to think. Or so corporations seem to want to think. With the introduction of every new technology, there is a wave of hope and false belief that finally the silver bullet has arrived (remember blockchain?). Truth is: that silver bullet did not arrive. Insight is not created from data by algorithms, insight happens at the human side of the equation.

Look, for example, at the satellite monitoring sector and of the past 20 years:

“In recent years, the nascent satellite sector and related fields like geospatial data analysis have received hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment, but profitable exits are still few and far between.”

Why is that?

There are three reasons for that:

  1. Those technology companies were not selling solutions but rather problems;
  2. Those technologies were treated as an end, not a means; technology doesn’t make decisions;
  3. Those technologies were offered as a one size fits all solution; there was no consideration for nuances because of local context.

The problem of technology is not the problem of technology. It’s the problem of humans. 

Humans, or, the decision makers in corporations tend to see technology as the solution. To overcome these problems, a few things have to change:

  1. Technology companies should start with why? They should offer solutions;
  2. Managers should realise the role of technology in their decision making process;
  3. Technology companies should incorporate contextual intelligence into their solutions; they should be aware of local context.

Technology’s role in the sustainability discourse: corporations as part of society

So, we found that corporations understand they should communicate about sustainability with society. They need reliable, consistent and up-to-date information for that. Technology, such as satellite imaging, can provide that information and fill the gap between producers and the supermarket.

But to fully use technology’s potential, the following conditions have to be met:

  • Sustainability risk issues in (soft) commodity value chains can only be solved with a holistic view; environmental, social and political aspects that affect risk and performance should be taken into account;
  • Start with the problem, not the technology: design solutions from the customer’s perspective, then find an optimal technological fit, not the other way around;
  • Understand local context; sustainability is a complex issue where environmental, economical, social and political factors play a role;

Once those conditions are met, technology, like satellite based monitoring solutions, can provide information to fuel the public discourse on sustainability. Consistent monitoring of environmental issues in commodity production with satellite technology provides an evidence based baseline for discussion.

Corporations as part of society; fighting for sustainability together

Social change can be a slow process but society is proving to be moving towards a more sustainable future. We are seeing more companies implementing sustainability strategies which rely on technological innovation. However, neither companies nor society should put all hopes in technology expecting it to transform the fight for sustainability.

We should use technology as an enabler, a conversation starter. Technology should be used to close the information gap between society and corporations. Between suppliers and manufacturers. Between growers and traders.

Technology like satellite-based monitoring is the start of moving towards sustainability like zero-deforestation, not the end. Satellites don’t stop deforestation, humans do. But satellite-based monitoring is an indispensable part of providing an up-to-date coherent stream of discussion ready data with which humans can make decisions.