Zero Waste: Are We Rationalizing Sustainable Practices?

Smart people rationalize. They can’t help themselves. Once you feel as though you have the intellectual capabilities, you are more likely to begin to persuade yourself that your thinking is correct. If the conversation is turned to building a sustainable business practice, does the analysis of the project’s success or failure depend on how smart you are? If smart people rationalize a conclusion, they also tend to take the information that makes them smart and use it to work their way backwards.

Rationalization is a conviction supported by information that we believe to be true. And once we believe something to be true, we tend to drift into a state of mental laziness, perhaps as some psychologists suggest is a way for us to conserve nutrients to our brain that might be wasted in an effort to convince us otherwise.

The Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh suggests “Critical thinking means being able to make good arguments. Arguments are claims backed by reasons that are supported by evidence.” What happens when we are confronted with evidence-based reasoning that makes a good and viable argument but instead we embrace rationalization as the thinking we are most comfortable in adopting?

I may suggest and have repeatedly done so that removing organic waste from the landfill benefits everyone. This is a claim.

I can offer numerous facts as to why it is beneficial and make the argument to support the reasons your business should adopt a program if you do not have one or adjust the program you currently have if you do.

And the evidence is well-documented in its benefits. Evidence propels an audience to accept the assertions in this instance that organic waste recovery is the right thing to do. What every green advisor knows all too well is the resulting rationalization that takes place in far too many encounters with the evidence.

They hear: “We are doing our best.” “We have engaged the right business partners and trust them to do what we hired them to do.” “We can’t possibly do more.” “We will get there eventually.” “We have a business to run.” “Mistakes happen.”

I should point out that it is not necessarily the fault of an individual, although I do regularly point to the leadership, the person(s) responsible for critical decision making that encompasses all of the information available, the person(s) we hope have eliminated the rationale of “jumping to conclusions” from the process. It is not the fault of the organization either, one that in all likelihood exists because it executes profitably in their chosen field.

It is the fault of rationalizing. And once a company (leader or those assigned to engage in a sustainability effort) begins this process, allowing reasoning seasoned with misinformation to support those types of aforementioned rationalization, self-assessment tends to result in false evidence. This may well transcend analysis. You only need to examine the headline skimming evidence touted by our political parties to see how our human weaknesses will work against (or for) our personal conclusions.

When there is evidence, I am hopeful, almost to a fault. There are some new behavioral studies that point to our ability to apply corrective reasoning to misconceptions can actually right what seems to be an erroneous opinion. So how does this relate to organic recovery?

In the world of circular economics, a world that in the day-to-day activity of a grocery store for instance, involves the recovery of every scrape of wasted food should follow a certain logical path. That journey looks something like this: Stores sell products at regular price. Not everything is sold and some items are marked down. When those items fail to move from the shelves, the next step is seen as easily pursued: the donation. A cursory review of the thousands of grocery stores across the U.S. suggest that this process of supporting the local food bank is a success. However, this is not the end of the line for this material – and this is where the breakdown is the most obvious – because not all organic waste can be donated.

There are some efforts being made at the local level in many of these locations to remove this material from the landfill. Farmers and ranchers have sourced viable materials for their animals and while some are participating in composting programs when available, inefficiencies suggest a need for improvement. These types of program, often ground-level arrangements away from main office involvement, is rationalization at its best. This sort of organic mitigation makes the company feel good however false that feeling actually is. Why?

Every action has a consequence. It is like the organic farmer, fully certified to grow the best produce and yet uses equipment that is not fuel efficient, transports material to market in old trucks and protects their crop in plastic/foam that cannot be readily recycled. Or consider your composting program that uses traditional dump trucks to haul your discarded organic materials that may or may not be contaminated (up to the discretion of the hauler in most situations) and is eventually discarded as landfill.

The best organic recovery programs rely on systems that are underutilized (such as reverse logistics or backhauling to distribution centers), move the materials in their original packaging (to be discarded once processed) and ideally, converted into a product that has direct benefits (such as the creation of amino acids that could be reintroduced into the food chain). This is evidence based information that supports the simple fact that no matter how large or small your organization is, there is room for improvement.

Your company’s sustainable practices need three things to succeed: leadership, opportunity and a conversation. We should start that effort today. I have the evidence to support the claims. What sort of reasoning will you use to ignore the possibilities?


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