A Vocabulary for Sustainable Business
Published March 12, 2007
Words can be the lynchpin in a strategy to change people's opinions, behavior or understandings. Certainly, messaging is critical in any movement (as any White House administration can tell you). However, your audience must understand what you're talking about in order for your information to be powerful and your messages must be compatible with their lives in order to be meaningful.
Too often, discussions about abstract phenomenon (such as externalities) or industry-specific terms (such as eco-effectiveness) fail to communicate to people critical concepts for new solutions. We can't expect people to change their behavior or priorities if they don't understand how these relate to their lives. Perhaps, we can expect professionals to learn arcane terms but most people need terms that communicate clearly and quickly what sustainable behavior means to their lives.
The solution isn't to coin wholly new terms. While this often works well for business titles, it rarely works for business discourse. Along with changes to terms and definitions-even inventing new metrics and standards-we need to change the traditional vocabulary of business as well. In February's column, Paul Sheldon observed that sustainable business principles" are inspiring more and more leaders to adopt sustainability as "just good business." One of the challenges this recognizes is in redefining business success in more sustainable terms.
Consider how, in the 1980s, the Republican Party successfully turned the word "liberal" into something negative, despite the weight of enduring American values being squarely aligned with "liberalism." More recently, the careful rewording and reframing of the U.S. Inheritance Tax into the "Death Tax" has accomplished much the same effect for that issue. I don't mean to target one party over another except that the last two decades of Republican efforts has been vastly more sophisticated and successful at this than any other movement.
Words, phrases, and definitions carry important weight in structuring a position or even framing the dialog. While they aren't the only element important to discourse, they do lay a foundation on which to build intelligent and influential conversation.
Even as hordes of Republican candidate speeches in the last election cycle started using the term "sustainable" almost incessantly, it's often clear that it doesn't have the same meaning for many of these candidates as it does for people in the sustainable business community (the same can be inferred about many candidates in all parties).
But it's not just the word sustainability that isn't clear. Almost every term used in the sustainability community is too vague and too malleable to be influential or understandable. Some, like global warming, are even confusing (since not everywhere in the world is going to warm up and not all of the time). Al Gore has stopped using this term (though Oprah hasn't), favoring climate change. Alternatives like global weirding and climate crisis are still odd and inconsistent for most of the public to recognize or understand.
We need to support several ways into the conversation because different terms appeal to different audiences. But we need to do so in ways that don't negate the very lessons and messages of sustainability and without making it impossible to communicate with those in the sustainability community nor with others outside of it. This is no easy task.
To this end, I helped launch the Dictionary of Sustainability a year ago to contribute to these objectives. Along with wonderfully odd, new words entering our vocabulary (such as Sprouts, Cheater Capitalism and Monstrous Hybrid), it was important to us to take fresh and important approaches to traditional business terms that helped illuminate how sustainable approaches not only blend with "business as usual,” but breathe new life and opportunities in it.
Long-established terms like Gross Domestic Product, Productivity, and Opportunity Cost of Capital take on new meaning in our world and offer an opportunity to engage traditional business people in a conversation that reflects what they already know and believe. It forms the starting point for not only a better dialog but also a foundation for understanding how new, sustainable objectives blend with traditional ones.
The audience for the dictionary is intended to be a bridge between the traditional world of business and the future world of sustainable business - one that integrates approaches to natural and human capital, not merely financial capital. Business and economic leaders (in both the traditional and sustainable worlds) as well as business students who will be the leaders in the near future, should have a place to begin this dialog and help hone agreements to this vocabulary. We've found precious few other venues for such a conversation.
Since this movement is still evolving, the Dictionary is designed to be a living document, not a dogmatic one. Each term allows people to post their comments, questions, and suggested changes. Each term, therefore, can become its own conversation. Periodically, the editors respond and integrate the comments into the definitions themselves.
The process of developing agreed-upon vocabularies is always a messy evolution but the importance in doing so only grows with the industry and the movement. New definitions often define new possibilities and generate new conversations that ultimately contribute to a more socially responsible and environmentally sound future. To me, that's exactly what the world needs more of (well, that and love, sweet, love). Maybe we need some songs for the movement as well?
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