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If It’s Profitable, Is It Really Sustainable?

If It’s Profitable, Is It Really Sustainable?

That an economic activity has to be profitable is considered a truism, something taken for granted and not reflected upon. But what if the opposite is the case?

When I first took up small-scale organic farming in the 1970s, I spent a lot of energy in developing new methods and machinery to increase efficiency in production. The early organic advocates went a long way to assure other growers, farmers, businesses and politicians that organic farming could be profitable, even within the prevailing economic system. Even more so, if externalities would be factored into the price (which they still are not). I see a similar discourse surrounding regenerative agriculture, permaculture, market gardening or artisanal bakery. But perhaps this assurance of profitability was misguided all along. What if profit is not desirable? What if the pursuit of profit is at the core of the ills of society?

There is an ethical perspective on profit that questions if it is fair that capital owners get richer while workers don’t. That question is justified, and could be the subject of another essay, but fairness is outside of the scope of this article. My focus instead is on what implications profit has for the economy and the ever-growing use of resources.

Profit in the sustainability narrative

In the world of business, an enterprise is considered to be viable only if it is profitable. In the prevailing sustainability discourse, we are told that there is no contradiction between profitability and environmental or social progress. On the contrary, profitability is seen a prerequisite for sustainable development. Environmental politics is full of concepts such as “triple-bottom-line” and “people, planet, profit”. But, by and large, this is simply not correct. Profitability is incompatible with sustainability. Let me explain why.

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