Becky L. Jacobs

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Virginia Environmental Law Journal


Consumers are increasingly prioritizing the "sustainability" of their purchases, even when products labeled as "sustainable" sometimes are more expensive than their ostensibly unsustainable counterparts. Businesses have responded to this trend by promoting a wide range of fair trade and "sustainable" services and products, from items packed in bio-degradable, post-consumer recyclable paper to those supplied by companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprints, water use, paper consumption, and waste generation.

There are not, however, agreed criteria for what makes a business "sustainable," nor is there a precise, authoritative definition of sustainability or of the products, practices, or services that the term includes and excludes. This lack of a consistent, clear definition, combined with the proliferation of services and products being marketed as "sustainable," exposes businesses to accusations of "greenwashing" arising from the exploitation of ambiguity and consumer confusion. An increase in consumer interest in, and awareness of, specific company sustainability practices also creates an environment in which companies may alienate their consumer base by making what some might view as misleading or false claims.

This article focuses on the numerous definitions of sustainability, on their similarities and differences, on their use by the business community, and on the threat that the lack of a uniform definition poses to a generally positive and important trend. In Part I, the article explores the various sustainability ranking and rating systems and the key metrics and/or performance indicators used by these systems. This section also briefly discusses the impact of this vast array of systems and definitions on key stakeholders. Part II surveys recent initiatives seeking to improve sustainability-related corporate disclosures. Finally, Part III analyzes the multitude of recent actions that individuals, organizations, and government entities have taken to promote the corporate use of sustainable practices and considers the risks and rewards for companies labeling their products and services as "sustainable." By surveying such efforts, this article endeavors to underscore the importance of a precise and unambiguous definition of "sustainability" to maximize the benefits of the sustainability trend.

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