What Color is the Triple Bottom Line?

I recently posted a query on Twitter and Facebook asking a simple but vexing question: "Someone committed to the environment is called an environmentalist. What do you call someone committed to sustainability?"

The answers I got were largely snarky, smug, and, ultimately, unsatisfactory. (I probably should have added a single-worded addendum: "Seriously.") Suggestions included "A good ancestor," "Idealist," "Human," "Thinker," "Educated," "Brilliant," and the like. A few folks gamely stepped up to the challenge: "Regenerative designer," "Sustainer," and "Triple bottom liner" were among their suggestions.

Someone pointed to a blog called The Sustainabilitist, which seemed to be trying to coin a meme along those lines.

As I said, all of this left a lot to be desired.

This is no mere idle noodling. Names matter. They create definitions, frameworks, images, and reference points, and are essential to the birth of movements, eras, and culture change. Can you name a significant movement, era, or cultural shift that didn't have a good name or descriptor? The media and blogosphere are famous for branding just about everything -- witness the "gate" suffix appended to nearly every scandal, no matter how clumsily, since Watergate in the 1970s. Without a name, ideas rarely catch on.

Since the 1970s, we've referred to "the environmental movement" and "environmentalists." These days, the attention is shifting toward the broader arena of sustainability, which includes environmental concerns as well as social and economic ones. And while for some sustainability is used synonymously with environment, that misperception is slowly fading as activists, business leaders, thought leaders, and others help to shape the conversation away from conflating the "S"-word with the "E"-word.

"Sustainability" is, most people agree, a challenging term. Most people find it hard to define, frequently reverting to the clumsy definition of "sustainable development" set forth by the Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations in 1983. The commission's 1987 report, Our Common Future, made this now well-known declaration:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of "needs," in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

That definition isn't bad, but it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. And it is only mildly helpful today, when references to sustainability (as opposed to "sustainable development") extend well beyond the "needs of the world's poor" to include (among other things) the actions and outcomes of companies, products, processes, and social systems in both developing and developed economies.

Some have boldly try to update Brundtland's definition of the sustainability (some can be found here), but none of these definitions has become widely used. (For what it's worth, I often describe sustainability as "An intergenerational Golden Rule.")

And no one has yet come up with a better word to describe attention paid to environmental, social, and economic matters. So, assuming we're stuck with the word, how do we talk about people committed to sustainability? I'd still like to know.

What about green? I regularly hear pronouncements to the effect that "Green is passé," or that "Consumers have green fatigue."

Perhaps, but that's not the whole story.