The art of sustainability mythmaking

When Mike Bellamente, director of Climate Counts, posted his review of last month's GreenBiz Forum in New York City on Huffington Post, it didn’t bode well at first. “We've succeeded in building an entire industry of sustainability professionals, individually doing yeoman's work to further the cause, but collectively falling short in how we validate our work beyond our bubble.” To influence the wider world, Bellamente said, “We need to blow up our tidy little world of ‘green bizzers’ and explore more effective ways of becoming inclusive of the everyday Joe. Joe Marketer, Joe Consumer, Joe Investor, Joe the Plumber ... all the Joes and all their female, interracial, socially conservative, LGBT counterparts.”

I couldn’t agree more. Down here in Texas, when I tell people outside the industry that I run a sustainability communications firm, even reasonably smart professionals (read: 95 percent of businesspeople) give me a deer-in-the-headlights look. Nodding and pretending to understand, they say something like, “That sounds really interesting” before redirecting the conversation to subjects that actually do interest them.

Here’s the rub. It’s hard to talk about our most pressing environmental issues without using the term “sustainability.” Many think that we need a new word, but I disagree. Rather, we need to do a better job of using the word we have — imbuing sustainability with shared meaning and context. We also need to exercise judgment concerning when and how to use it.

As professionals, one way we can better reach Joe is to define more concretely our role within sustainability. Case in point: In 2005 when I launched EarthPeople, it was a sustainability consulting firm, a broad descriptor meant to function as a catchall until I could solidify the ideal positioning. Today, EarthPeople is a sustainability communications firm, emphasizing our core competencies in stakeholder engagement, cause marketing, media strategy, CSR and public relations. Sustainability is our area of subject-matter expertise, but our function in the movement relates to communication, a familiar term easily understood by people outside the field and appreciated by sustainability insiders as well. Clarifying this has helped us attract quality clients that can genuinely benefit from our services, most recently a department of the World Bank.

Next page: Regular Joe doesn’t like jargon