Do we need the S-word? Yes, for many reasons

Questioning Assumptions

Do we need the S-word? Yes, for many reasons

Do we really need to use the “S-word” – sustainability --  in order to talk about sustainability? Joel Makower originally posed this question (and answered with a “no”). This strikes me as one of the classic questions for our still-young field, one that goes to its core, and which will be raised again and again.

The polar extremes of response to the question are: “Sustainability just doesn’t resonate with my audiences, I can make changes in my organization without it, so who needs it?” versus “How can you possibly talk about a subject without mentioning the main way you refer to that subject?” I aim to speak both to the critics at the first pole, as well as those who want to take the sustainability term further.

I’ve already had two small bites at this apple. As a comment directly on the original piece, I emphasized:

  • The doubly ironic point that the very success of sustainability-labeled initiatives by companies over the years, important in its own right, is also a response to very different criticisms of the term raised by two other audiences: some environmentalists and the Tea Party. Some environmentalists see sustainability as business co-option of environmentalism and the acceptance of mediocrity as the bar. The Tea Party sees it as U.N.-initiated, sneaky socialism.
  • We seem to have an unusually high standard of clarity and meaning for this particular word than for other mostly very admired words which can also be ambiguous and argued over like democracy, freedom, and liberty. But we usually do not advocate junking these, showing a little vagueness is not a disqualifier for preeminent terms
  • The term can express fundamental core concepts and hold potentially irreplaceable benefits which would be greatly missed in its absence.

(I also wondered, rhetorically, why in my years in this field I keep running into so many “S-words,” most of which are not particularly pleasant; e.g. soot, sludge, and worse.)

I also directly commented on a Kathrin Winkler piece whose title defended the “S-word.” I agreed with her rarely made points that implied the motives behind the actions of sustainability-pursuing businesspeople do matter, as do peoples’ values. I added that as sustainability includes these tenets, the argument would be even stronger by invoking the term. I also appreciated her discussion of the importance of higher reasons for sustainability, like “the future of the planet,” which, as she points out, can be difficult to talk about. However, I added that as this is the major internal motive for why some of us do what we do, we have to overcome any reluctance we feel and increasingly bring this point into sustainability discussions.

Finally, while further pondering this topic, particularly the above-point about core properties and inherent benefits of the term; another likely classic question was raised by Joel in a separate article: "Why Aren't There More Ray Andersons?" I realized some of the best answers to this question also directly relate to the earlier “why sustainability” question.

I’m going to do this as a three-part series. The first is this introduction. The second will be my and a few others’ ideas about sustainability’s key properties and benefits. The third will be some of the best answers I’ve seen to the Ray Anderson question.

If successful in this series, I hope to see sustainability — both the term and what it stands for -- better understood, accepted and more fully utilized in the sustainable business field, even by those initially uncomprehending audiences some of you are seeing.

Image of sustainability word courtesy of GreenBiz Group