You can’t have a revolution if you don’t know what to name it

Editor's note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the use of the "S-word." Read part 1 here.

In this column, I continue to defend the use of the “S-word”—“sustainability” as essential because of the term’s critical core concepts and irreplaceable, if overlooked, benefits. In Part I of this three-part series, I gave some responses to points Joel Makower and Kathrin Winkler had made on this topic (he had rejected “Sustainability;” her piece accepted it), and mentioned the relevance of Joel’s separate “Why aren't there more Ray Andersons” in our field question I will get to in Part III.

Here, in Part II, we have to leave the now-more-comfortable and easier parts of sustainability, and, perhaps kicking and screaming, enter the inconvenient, ambiguous, challenging, and not-so-pleasant to hear. (Not so different, perhaps, from my reluctance to keep up with the never-ending electronic distractions the times see as such great boons to society. Now I’ll have to learn apps…sigh!)

A major theme of the study Joel originally summarized (by VOX Global, Weinreb Group, and Net Impact, Berkeley) is that it is essential that CSO’s and others seeking to influence business’ direction must talk their language, and that a major part of the CSO’s job is to convert external sustainability concepts into the costs and profits businesspersons can readily (and implicitly, only) understand. While certainly it is much easier to stay on this track, let’s ask some questions about what might be lost.

Language contains huge elements of culture, revealing how various groups think, and what’s important and meaningful to them. How could we best arm companies to understand, co-exist with, and benefit from their outside non-business “partners” (another emergent theme in the sustainable business field) without understanding the latters’ values and terms? Force-fitting their worlds and perspectives into ours, or vice-versa, risks poor quality translations and asking for trouble.

How will we attain the necessary level of understanding of another just-emerging area, ecosystem services and its relevance to business and its planning, pioneered by PPR and Dow? While it’s not necessary for us to become ecological or systems scientists, it is equally unrealistic to think we in business have nothing to learn about concepts such as non-linearity, tipping points, irreversibility, and complexity, particularly now with at least three of the earth's nine biogeochemical cycles past their tipping points. It would be a very superficial and risky understanding without pursuing at least a “101,” or even a “201” level comfort with these terms.

The sustainable business field must evolve to become open to what alarms some of us -- the earth is endangered! And, yes, as Kathrin points out, it can be difficult to talk about this because of some unfriendly responses. But as sustainability professionals, we have no choice.

If we can’t talk about this, if we’re limited to strictly “business language,” how will businesspeople see a narrowing of "the walls of the funnel," a prominent part of The Natural Step program’s approach to sustainability, about the increasingly scarce natural resources that may be hitting us, and begin to prepare for it?

Next Page: Widening our antennas