Ending the alphabet soup in the [insert word here] field

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series exploring the evolution -- and subsequent anarchy -- of the terminology used to describe the work that sustainability professionals do.

In the beginning

When I went to work for Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) in 1998, there was no question what to call the field I had entered: Corporate Social Responsibility. The term rolled off the tongue easily and came with a handy tri-syllabic acronym -- CSR -- that was easy to remember.

It struck me (and others) at the time that CSR left out one of our two major issue areas, and that "CSER" or "CS&ER" would be more accurate. But those were a bit cumbersome, and ... whatever. We all knew what we meant.

But other terms already were filtering into the vocabulary of art. Four years earlier, John Elkington had proposed Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profit). Elkington's term encompassed environmental issues in a way that CSR didn't, and "bottom line" made it clear that we understood and accepted business imperatives -- that we weren't just talking about philanthropy. Who could argue with that?

Well, me, for one. I wasn't entirely convinced that economic impacts offered anything near the heft or opportunity for change of "E" and "S." Plus the term was a bit of a mouthful, and the short form, TBL, sounded like -- I don't know, a cable channel or maybe a yogurt chain, not an emerging profession.

The other thing about Triple Bottom Line is that it left out governance, which we increasingly understood to be the driver for nearly every aspect of corporate performance, including profits and economic impacts. If governance determined profits and economic impacts, shouldn't governance replace Profits in the Big Three (People, Planet, Governance)? Or did this mean we should start talking about a quadruple bottom line (QBL)? What if yet another bucket came along? Quintuple Bottom Line, anyone?

Sustainability -- perfect, right?

I downright liked sustainability when I first heard it, and still do. It was a dynamic, versatile concept rather than a mere naming of static categories. It suggested an active process that emphasized planning, investment and performance over time, and it embraced all of us, not just corporations. Sustainability told us in no uncertain terms that we have to live and work on this planet in such a way that its resources, both human and physical, are undiminished for the next generation, and the next, and so on. Compare that to boring old CSR.

Discussion over: sustainability is the perfect term.

Except that it's not

Except that it's not the perfect term. To start with, Europeans commonly use sustainability as an umbrella term for the field; a majority of Americans still use it to indicate environmental issues. Enter confusion. Second, while in some ways it's good that sustainability transcends the mere naming of content buckets, it, um, doesn't name any content buckets, so unless you already know what it means, you don't have a clue what it means. That reduces its utility, to put it mildly. And despite the Bruntland statement, it lacks a commonly agreed upon current definition (see Joel Makower's "What Is Sustainability, Anyway?")

Next page: Getting back to basics

Alphabet soup photo by Handmade Photos on Shutterstock.