Sustainability Theater

Making sure your sustainability program is more than performance art

theater, theatre, drama, comedy

In the early days of the pandemic, Derek Thompson wrote an article for The Atlantic magazine titled, Hygiene Theater Is a Huge Waste of Time.

He wrote, “COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed. This is hygiene theater.”

While it is important to communicate the steps typically taken to create safe and healthy spaces, hygiene theater often does little more than waste money, time, and resources.

Creating a false sense of security

These same concerns are emerging when organizations make sustainability claims that are nothing more than performance art—doing little to reduce the risk of harm to the environment, people, and future generations.

This is sustainability theater.

Examples of sustainability theater include installing small solar arrays as “demonstration projects” (we already know solar works) and constructing wind turbines that provide little power while at the same time doing little to reduce the true energy consumption. Purchasing a single electric vehicle for a large fleet, and making claims suggesting a serious commitment to sustainability, does nothing to establish real change. Similarly, an organization can purchase renewable energy credits to make “net-zero” claims, again without making any actual improvements.

Avoiding sustainability theater

Cleaning industry organizations must disclose their impacts on the environment. Consider the following questions:

  • Is the program managed by someone with expertise in sustainability? Imagine a cleaning chemical manufacturer hiring a chemist to formulate the next generation of disinfectants. One would expect that chemist to have specific technical training and experience formulating disinfectants. But unfortunately, organizations often hire people with little to no training in sustainability to lead their sustainability efforts.

    Check out candidates’ profiles on LinkedIn. If their background is loaded with sales, marketing, public relations, government affairs, or other unrelated experience, sustainability theater might be the unintended result of this person’s lack of expertise.

  • Are the numbers objective and meaningful? An organization’s numbers will depend on what the organization does and what is important or material to them. A manufacturer might report on the greenhouse gas emissions from their use of energy, water, and waste, whereas a distributor might focus on the fuel efficiency of their delivery fleet, and a service provider might concentrate on diversity, wages, benefits, and other workforce issues.

    Organizations that rarely provide data, or that post data that is unbelievably high or low, may be creating performance art.

As with hygiene theater, let’s ensure that money, time, and resources are being used effectively to avoid sustainability theater.

Watch the related StraightTalk! episode “Sustainability Theater: Stop the Performance” with Steve Ashkin and ISSA Media Director Jeff Cross below:

Listen to the podcast of the episode below:


Stephen P. Ashkin

President, The Ashkin Group

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in green cleaning and sustainability. He can be reached at [email protected].

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