Should 'sustainability' still be a buzzword in 2014?

Every New Year brings fresh jargon to the sustainability field. The practice of coining new phrases can breathe vitality into old ideas, but marketers also can overuse the tactic in their quest to sell books and training seminars. (I am guilty, too.)

But this new year, I resolve to do better at communicating sustainability. Not just the concept, but also the word.

It’s difficult to reach the goal we’re striving for — a sustainable economy — without using the word “sustainable.” Yes, it is loaded and squishy and challenging. But so is “serendipity” and hundreds of other meaningful words that we understand in our gut but cannot easily articulate.

To be sure, dozens of terms may be appropriate when describing the nuances of a system as complex as the economy. Here are some we’ve heard in recent years: new economy, knowledge economy, information economy, green economy, blue economy, sharing economy, restoration economy, regenerative economy and circular economy. Although each adjective illuminates appealing attributes of the economy we want, imagine how off-putting this morass of labels is for the uninitiated.  

Rather than pull mainstreamers in, the paradox of choice in the sustainability nomenclature can cause readers to tune out or reject the conversation entirely. At the same time, ditching “sustainable” for other descriptors risks confusing an audience that is finally beginning to pay attention.

Is using 'sustainable' necessary?

A cynic might even say that none of these words is necessary. It’s still the economy, stupid. Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s just one economy — and like it or not, we still participate in it every time we drive a car or fly in a plane fueled by gasoline.  

My husband, a Dallas lawyer, is one such cynic. As a commercial litigator, Mike is clear that he makes his living off the old economy. And he’s not ecstatic over the word sustainability, either (he calls it the "S" word). But at least he’s heard of it. And while Mike doesn’t know the Brundtland definition, he does appreciate the value of sustainability every time a new client pays me for a service. Or when we receive an ultra-low electric bill, thanks to our energy-saving LEED Platinum home.

You see, Mike is on board with making money and saving energy and resources. That is what sustainability means to him, based on real, tangible experience and results (plus my relentless talking about it). The very solutions we posit to improve our economy — financially, socially and environmentally — make more sense when we speak about them in the context of an existing system.  

Fortunately, with enough use, the abstract can become concrete. After a decade of consistent use, the term “sustainable” finally has meaning to others just like Mike.

As a sustainability communicator for startups, Fortune 500s and NGOs, I’ve also learned that the words we choose depend not only on the audience, but also the messenger. If you are a leader with a big platform and want to emphasize an aspect of sustainability that may have been overlooked, championing a new term is helpful. (That’s what Buzzcar founder Robin Chase did with the sharing economy, for example.) This course of action works if you have the energy, marketing muscle, commercial success or research platform to consistently communicate the concept.

But once a catchphrase or word loses momentum, it’s difficult to get it back. Some terms are weighed down with political baggage. Others require their own user’s manual to understand. That’s why I’m sticking with a “sustainable” economy. It connotes more than environmental stewardship, but also financial endurance. Consider the definition of the root word from Merriam-Webster:

Sustain
• To provide what is needed for (something or someone) to exist
• To hold up the weight of (something)
• To deal with or experience (something bad or unpleasant)
• To give support or relief to
• To supply with sustenance: nourish

By contrast, consider:

Consume
• To eat or drink (something)
• To use (fuel, time, resources, etc.)
• To destroy (something) with fire
• To do away with completely: destroy
• To spend wastefully: squander
• To use up
• To eat or drink especially in great quantity

When you think of it like that, calling someone a consumer is practically an insult. And yet, citizens accept the moniker every day, placing their value as one who buys on par with one who votes. Such is the power of framing, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff points out. What we hear over and over is what we internalize as true.

Show them the way

Our task as sustainability professionals is not only to illuminate the way, but also to equip others with the language necessary to accomplish their goals. In this new year, sustainability advocates would do well to imbue the term sustainable with staying power by contextualizing it through thought leadership and storytelling.

Case studies and accessible research handling sustainability from different angles also help people grasp the complexity. Joel Makower’s series on McDonald’s purchase of sustainable beef, a formidable piece of journalism reflecting years of research into different facets of sustainability in a corporate context, is an example of the lengths we sometimes must go in to give this meaning.  

Cultural change is never easy, and many forces stand in the way of making public perception of sustainability more favorable. But one thing is certain, at least for reaching those within our respective spheres of influence: To make meaning out of sustainability does not call for finding new terminology in a thesaurus or a dictionary, but for exercising some old-fashioned leadership through our own example.

Seedliing image by kirillov alexey via Shutterstock.