What, exactly, are you exporting?

I found that this video from the BBC — http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26124988 — has resonance for the global chemical industry.

The interviewer investigates the fact that, during the most severe drought in California’s recorded history, farmers are using precious water to grow crops for export to China. Isn’t this the same as exporting California’s precious available water to a foreign country? What are the sustainability implications of such trade?

I think that the answer lies in reflecting on the Profit, Planet, People paradigm that defines the quest for sustainability. It clearly makes sense for Californian farmers to grow alfalfa for China at a profit. But it makes less sense for the planet to engage in long-range transportation of low value goods, and it makes even less sense to the local community to neglect local needs in favor of global economic pressures. To paraphrase an English saying, “Sustainability begins at home”.

The implications of this story are huge. Should the Middle East be using scarce water in chemical processes to serve China’s insatiable demand for commodity plastics. Are not plant relocations in the chemical industry in part just a way of exporting carbon emissions away from carbon-conscious parts of the world to regions where the issue is not at the forefront of public discourse? Is there a case to be made for reducing the shipping of chemicals, especially commodities, from one region to another, when all aspects of production are taken into account?

This story illustrates very clearly that all three of the pillars of sustainability have to be assessed to reach a truly sustainable decision. The dominant force in this story is the profit pillar. Counterbalance that pillar with the other two, and you might well reach a different decision about your next business move.