When is a solution not a solution? Navigating the complexities of sustainability

By Alexandra Smith
Posted on December 8th 2023

Defining what constitutes a genuine solution can feel like a tricky endeavour as businesses strive towards sustainability. As stakeholders become increasingly aware of sustainability issues, they naturally scrutinise claims more closely. The boundaries between impactful environmental actions, economic considerations, social impact, and mere greenwashing are often blurred, raising concerns about efficacy, unintended consequences, and ethical considerations. In this evolving landscape, transparency and authenticity are more critical than ever for businesses navigating the complexities of sustainable practices. Stakeholders seek commitments and verifiable actions, driving demand for credible and measurable sustainability initiatives.

FuturePlus's approach to sustainability emphasises both qualitative and quantitative measurement and management. We value the significance of a dual perspective, forward-looking and retrospective, encouraging ambitions to be set for the short, medium, and longer term. Our methodology encompasses comprehensive sustainable business practices, acknowledging the necessity of compromise, especially when navigating the inherent trade-offs within the five themes integral to the FuturePlus framework, Climate, Environment, Social, Economic and Diversity and Inclusion.
Many organisations fear making the wrong decision, and pursuing positive outcomes while avoiding potential pitfalls can manifest as indecision, hesitancy, or even a sense of being overwhelmed. Individuals, departments, and organisations frequently grapple with the weight of sustainable choices and their potential internal and external impact.

To overcome this fear of making the wrong decision, it is crucial to consider concrete solutions and chart a roadmap forward. This may involve adopting a mindset that views decisions not as isolated endpoints but as integral components of a continuous journey. Seeking experience, expertise, mentorship, and diverse perspectives can provide valuable insights. Additionally, breaking down complex decisions into manageable steps, educating stakeholders, and embracing setbacks as invaluable learning opportunities can contribute to a more informed and empowered decision-making process.

New solutions, old problems

Despite good intentions, companies may inadvertently experience negative outcomes due to inadequate planning or reactive approaches. A recent example of this has been the popularisation of recyclable coffee pods as a solution for those seeking a sustainable way to get their morning caffeine fix. Whilst recycling these pods should, in practice, reduce the amounts of waste generated, the reliance on industrial recycling facilities poses a range of other challenges. A Universidade Estadual de Maringá study found that only 11% of recycled coffee pods are actually recycled in Brazil. A similar narrative emerged when McDonlads replaced their recyclable plastic straws with paper ones, which, due to their thickness, are not themselves recycable. These examples are not alone, and they compel us to acknowledge that certain solutions may unintentionally yield adverse environmental consequences. The lesson seems clear: businesses should conduct thorough research and avoid knee-jerk solutions driven by public sentiment.

Partial solutions with unintended consequences are also often a cause for concern. Again, seemingly positive remedies like "green make-up wipes", which either decompose and/or are recyclable, whilst better than their immediate counterparts, still act as a major barrier towards mass adoption of circular economy strategies. While these products may be a step above doing nothing, their contribution to single-use consumerism supports a linear waste system and misses the opportunity for consumer education.

As seen with electric vehicles (EVs), sustainable transitions also create new challenges. Transitioning to electric vehicles is a sustainable solution to reduce our carbon footprint. Still, the entire lifecycle, including mining rare minerals and disposing of batteries at the end of their life, can be problematic and must be scrutinised, managed and communicated. Similarly, the shift to solar and wind energy also raises questions about the environmental impact of these processes, as seen by the growing issue of non-recyclable wind turbine blades.

Understanding the many implications of solutions across climate, social, diversity and inclusion, economic, and environmental aspects is crucial for informed decision-making. Defining these challenges allows businesses to manage the root issues of sustainability that they are looking to address.

Exclusive sustainability

The pursuit of sustainability often overlooks the inherent exclusivity of certain solutions, which disproportionately benefit those with greater access to resources or geographical location. While initiatives like refilling grocery shops and organic vegetable boxes are commendable steps towards a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, their accessibility remains a privilege, further widening the gap between those who can afford these options and those who cannot. This exclusivity inadvertently contributes to environmental injustice, perpetuating the notion that sustainable practices are only for the privileged, reinforcing existing social inequalities.

To address climate change and achieve sustainability, we must adopt a holistic approach encompassing environmental concerns and social equity. This means recognising the intersectionality of climate change, which not only affects the environment but also exacerbates existing social disparities. Genuine solutions must go beyond individual actions and address the underlying economic barriers preventing equitable access to sustainable practices. This includes initiatives such as providing affordable transportation options, establishing community gardens in underserved areas, and developing innovative technologies that make sustainable products accessible to all.

A fair and inclusive transition toward a sustainable future requires a commitment to strengthening social justice to achieve climate solutions that everyone, not just a select few, can adopt and popularise. By recognising and addressing these barriers, we can create a more equitable world where sustainability is not a privilege but a possibility for all.


Greenwashing further complicates the issue and requires businesses to adopt comprehensive and transparent strategies. The deceptive practice of overstating a product's environmental merits introduces complexity to pursuing genuine sustainability. Whether it's H&M and Primark's dubiously labelled "green" ranges or companies employing vague claims without substantial evidence, discerning between authentic efforts and mere marketing tactics proves challenging. Businesses must embrace strategies that ensure accountability for the claims they make to uphold the integrity of environmental and social goals.

What is the solution?

FuturePlus supports businesses in integrating sustainability into their operations, products, services, and supply chains. We provide the tools and support to gain a deeper understanding of impactful activities by measuring, managing, reporting, and improving their environmental and social impact, as well as the ability to communicate this to stakeholders transparently. With concerted effort, businesses can meet and exceed their sustainability commitments.

It is important to note that actions are not isolated; they build on one another to create ripple effects, nudging culture and behaviour change in the right direction. However, understanding our goals and impact, measuring what is valuable, and consistently managing the process to ensure we meet our aims is paramount. Businesses are often challenged with the question, "Are the incremental actions truly impactful, or do they merely scratch the surface of a much deeper issue?" Through evaluation, continual learning, and a commitment to sustainability, businesses can navigate the complexities and ensure their actions lead to meaningful and lasting change.

Want to know more? Reach out to FuturePlus for guidance on authentic and impactful sustainability solutions.

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