Sustainability science unites expertise from a diverse range of disciplines, including geography, agriculture, ecology, economics, physics and political science.
According to the “Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (IR3S)", a Japanese collaboration, the field is “a newly emerging academic field that seeks to understand the linkages among global, social, and human systems, and concomitant risks to human well-being and security.
“It is a problem-oriented discipline methods and visions for repairing these systems and linkages.”
From reducing carbon footprints, to conserving energy and water, an increasing amount of companies are publishing sustainability reports to measure the impact of their business on the world around them.
“The novelty of sustainability science lies in its academic approach; specifically, it must meet a number of challenges that existing disciplines have not experienced,” states the IR3S.
These challenges include the trade-off between solving a problem at the local or global scale, and exercising the precautionary principle where there is a responsibility to act and protect the public from potential harm where science indicates a risk.
The breadth of the field also means that sustainability scientists must master an academic framework which encompasses natural and social sciences, and the humanities.
“Sustainability science must also reach out to society at large,” states the IR3S.
“Only by disseminating the results of our research to society and the individuals that compose it can we achieve a sustainable society.”
Not an add-on for industry
Hilary Green, PhD, head of R&D communications for Nestlé told FoodNavigator.com that the world’s biggest food manufacturer has scientists dedicated to sustainability.
“However, ‘sustainability’ is not an add-on scientific activity. Sustainability is fundamental to the way in which Nestlé does business,” said Dr Green.
“Topics relating to sustainability are covered by scientists right across Nestlé Research, which encompasses Nestlé Research Centre and our 23 Product Technology and R&D Centres world-wide.”
“One of the great challenges of the 21st century will be to increase the global food and timber supply to accommodate a world growing to 10 billion or more people while undergoing climate change,” wrote William E. Easterling from the department of geography and the earth and environmental systems institute, Pennsylvania State University in PNAS.
Applying sustainability science is already reaping benefits for food companies. Dr Green stated that Nestlé has reduced the greenhouse emissions from its factories, by 17.3 per cent year on year since 2003.
“Nestlé’s improvement in its energy efficiency was reflected in a saving of 33million CHF in 2007,” said Dr Green.
Other food companies are also emphasizing their sustainability efforts. Riisgaard, Novozymes’ president and CEO, stated that the world saves an estimated 100 kg of CO2 emissions every time its customers use 1 kg of its enzymes, reducing CO2 emissions by about 20 million tons in 2007 alone. This is mainly because using enzymes saves energy compared with traditional processes.
Changing or optimising processes in order to reduce water usage is also a hot topic. Many sustainability scientists are looking at arid areas of the world, particularly Africa, in these terms, but industries closer to home are emphasising their own efforts.
A recent article in The Economist stated that JP Morgan put the water consumption of the world’s big five food and beverage companies - Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone – at about 575 billion litres per year.
The companies are making efforts to reduce this. Nestlé’s sustainability efforts have reduced water removal by 28 per cent in the last 10 years, said Dr Green.
Smaller companies are also applying science and technology to improve water consumption. US-based SunOpta’s natural resource conservation initiative, for example, claims to have saved over 85,000,000 gallons of water annually through a number of technological upgrades, process improvements, and focused conservation programs.