To treat our finite planet as if our lives depended on it

by Tze Yu (Joanna) Tung on February 20, 2014

When we think about sustainability, we must see it as a globally collaborative effort, because we only have one finite Earth. However, we have neglected to see that we’re already using 1.3 planets worth of resources as of 2010, according to Jason Clay, the vice-president of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the July 2010 TED talk at Oxford, England. WWF is an international, non-governmental organization that works on conservation and research of the environment. According to data compiled by WWF ever since 1990, we’ve been consuming more than Earth can provide. For example, the average American consumes 43 times more resources than the average African. In order to reduce consumption, the best way is to increase sustainability of common goods.

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Jason Clay, a senior vice-president of WWF at Ted talk in Oxford, England. July, 2010

To start, Clay and his team located 35 places of great biodiversity, and further identified the 15 key commodities that possess threats to these environments including palm oil, cotton, biofuels, sugarcane, beef, dairy, soy, tuna, farmed salmon, and farmed shrimp. Since dealing with 6.9 billion consumers or 1.5 billion producers would be too difficult, they decided to target companies that serve as liaisons between the producers and the consumers. This could prove to be an effective method of improving sustainability of these products.

Starting with the 300-500 companies that control 70% of the trade of each commodity, we could produce a chain reaction that would help reduce consumption. In order to draw a clear picture of how these companies dominate in particular sectors of everyday goods, Clay listed out the companies. During this process, he noticed that many of them control large portions of many commodities. This led him to list out the top 100 companies, and he found that they control 25% of trade of all 15 commodities.

Though 25% doesn’t seem like a large number, this amount of demand is enough to leverage about 40-50% of production. We see through this information that companies can pressure producers faster than consumers.  Around the time when this episode of TED talk was released, Cargill the Palm Oil company and Mars the chocolate company set out with a plan of action to improve product quality and preserve resources, allowing their companies to last longer by meeting consumers’ demands. WWF kept track of their supply chain management, water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and packaging.

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Companies marked in red have signed contract with WWF to improve sustainability of their products.

Sustainability is a precompetitive issue, meaning that reducing consumption places priority over competition among businesses. Within 18months, Clay and his team was able to convince 40 companies to sign with WWF and cooperate to improve productivity. As of today, 55 out of 100 top companies have signed with WWF.

By targeting the most influential companies, Clay was able to convince the system to “use less and make more.” As a farmer had told Clay, “You can’t wake a person who’s pretending to sleep.” We can easily be unaware of the issue of sustainability and blame population growth, but Clay’s actions are preventing people from pretending to sleep. His mission to create global standards for producing and using raw material is gradually making progress through the efforts of communicating with key companies. As for us, as consumers, we can accelerate the project by becoming more informed about sustainability and the consequences of overconsumption.


Free reusable coffee mugs provided by Sustainability@BU to encourage students’ participations.

Sustainability@BU is a program that serves to reduce Boston University’s environmental footprint through waste management, energy conservation, and community outreach. As college students, we’ve learned enough to see the purpose of sustainability, yet many of us lack the determination and consistency to be active about going green. Many challenges are posted on Carbonrally to encourage sustainability such as use of reusable mugs, sharing rides with others, and turning off lights in an empty room. I think that it will be a good idea to participate in these challenges and see how our own small actions can have large impacts on the world.




  1. TEDxTalk
  2. Interview with Jason Clay
  3. Sustainability@BU
  4. Carbonrally

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