How to fix the sustainability problem you didn’t know you had

Resilience for vertical farming

Sustainability stops the bleeding, but it does nothing to improve the human experience.

“The truth is,” says John Hansen, founder of the Paradigm Project, “you can have a sustainable dictatorship.”  In other words, you can maintain a bad situation indefinitely.  John is full of pithy quotes like these, and is probably more than a little responsible for the leading line of this story (my notes from our conversation were a bit fragmented at that point “Sustainable X blood — humanity”).

sust header

I recently had a long conversation with him, about a number of topics, but he was really able to capture the essence of “the sustainability problem” that I’d been thinking about for awhile and hinted at here.  My issue with sustainability is in how its used in marketing for vertical farming, but I want to tell you a little bit more about the concept of “resilience” first.

What is resilience?

The most basic definition of resilience is the ability a system has to withstand shocks.  In this case, it is a community’s ability to withstand those shocks, whether they are political and environmental, and continue on a path to a better environmental, political, and social future.  To borrow from and amend a 2012 NY Times op-ed, where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to thrive in an imbalanced world.

I first met John at an event called DC Urban Resiliency Weekend.  I was there participating in a vertical gardening workshop hosted by Niraj Ray of Millennial Farmers and an aquaponics workshop hosted by Tom Anger of Always Grow Green.  The event was held at a Common Good City Farm and attendees volunteered on the farm in between workshops.

common good

DC Resiliency Weekend was an experiment for DC.  It was a test of who would come out and it’s an ongoing test to see if this culture can thrive.  That remains to be seen, but I’m excited to see how it develops, especially as vertical farms start looking at DC as a space to grow.

While talking underneath a pavilion at Common Good, John really turned me onto this idea of using resiliency to support the human potential.  I had always thought about it in environmental terms; resiliency was just that step beyond sustainability. In reality, it was a little more.

To vertical farmers, that should mean a lot.  Vertical farmers aren’t here to sustain an existing food system.  They are here to innovate and shatter a paradigm.

Your sustainability problem

Now I come to what I mean when I talk about a sustainability problem. As someone as obsessed with effective marketing as I am, I have to cringe, because that paradigm shift is rarely communicated in any sort of B2C innovative agriculture campaign.  They just don’t talk about anything beyond sustainability.

To illustrate, I don’t think I’ve come across a single vertical farm’s website that doesn’t follow a specific formula when explaining how sustainable it is.  Each and every one of these projects has achieved incredible things, but compare these 3 quotes from different vertical farm sites:

  • “Our vertical growing technology and local distribution methods reduce energy use, travel time and costs tremendously, making this model one of the most sustainable ways to guarantee access to fresh, healthy produce”
  • “We grow food where people live and grow it more sustainably.”
  • “[We are] working to show what truly sustainable food production and economic development looks like”

Exxon Mobil has a similar platform as well: “We address the challenge of sustainability as part of our focused commitment to act as a responsible employer, business partner, and neighbor.”


What do you see?  I see three indistinguishable and bland bits of copy.  I see the language of greenwashing.  All of this is unfortunate because each of those three farms is moving far beyond anything companies like Exxon are trying to achieve.  They are moving towards resilience, they just aren’t saying it.

Sustainability or resilience?

Compared to the idea of resilience, sustainability is nothing more than a buzzword for corporate social responsibility platforms, and that’s problematic.  While there is nothing stopping the word resilience from heading that way as well, industries like vertical farming should use this time to educate people on the difference and the significance of what they are really trying to do.

The concept of sustainability is problematic for another reason as well.  By acknowledging “sustainability” as the responsible solution to the problems facing our world, we are underestimating how serious those problems actually are.  Borrowing from Cradle to Cradle, “What if you described your marriage as sustainable?”

It’s not enough to sustain our present circumstance, we have to do more.

Back to John.  “Resilience indicates thriving.  It’s about support for human potential-it’s about quality of life,” John told me when we were talking about a week after the event.  John went on to describe the challenges of bringing that to a city as transient as DC.

He described the difference in culture between here and the west coast.  Paraphrasing John, people are busy here, they’re so worn out from work that they don’t have the time or focus left for this kind of community engagement.

I mention this because Bright Farms is supposed to be building in DC soon, and though I don’t know how practical it would be, I want to see engagement between the DC Urban Resiliency Movement and that business.

How to fix it

Of course, the debate between sustainability and resilience goes far beyond a specialized interest in vertical farming.  And when it really comes down to it, in terms of marketing copy on a vertical farm’s website, it’s just semantics.  It’s even true that over time, we may see “resilience” co-opted by companies that really aren’t committed to it as well.

Thanks to Sky Vegetables for this shot!

Thanks to Sky Vegetables for this shot!

The choice of one word is not going to change a farm’s environmental impact, it’s not going to change its lighting efficacy, and it’s not going to change how many mouths it feeds.

With this post, I didn’t mean to demonize the concept of sustainability, or to paint resiliency as a purple squirrel; a perfect ideal.  The idea of sustainability has a lot of value in any business or environmental discussion, no matter the topic.

What I wanted to do was to get you to think.  Copywriting is hard, marketing is hard, and being responsible, whether that’s socially or environmentally, is hard.  As someone with a marketing background, I notice these things.  I notice where there is room for improvement.

After talking to John, I have a solution to what I’ve been calling the sustainability problem.  Don’t go on your website and replace every instance of “sustainable” with “resilient.”  Just, think about what your farm is really a symbol of.  Talk about that.

Vertical farmers are not looking to sustain a status quo.  They are looking to shatter paradigms, and it’s time they say that to people.

Up next, a recap of a recent vertical farming contest that I entered and…WON!


Thanks to John Hansen for talking with me.  I know he’s busy working with Pathways to Paris (a climate change group) in Peru now and probably won’t see this, but I enjoyed speaking with him just the same.

Here is the list of events from the DC Urban Resiliency Weekend.  This list will give you a good idea of who is involved (it’s a rather decentralized idea now) and how to get in touch if this is something you’re interested in.

By the way…

We are only going to give it out once and we are only giving it to people on the newsletter.

Urban Vertical Project is developing a killer presentation template for an amazing vertical farm funding pitch and we’re going to start giving it away for free at the end of this year!    Sign up below (just your first name and email, and we really, really won’t send you too much stuff) and follow us on Twitter @proverticalfarm.

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5 thoughts on “How to fix the sustainability problem you didn’t know you had

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