Should we abandon the language of sustainability?

The Inside View

Should we abandon the language of sustainability?

Talking "sustainability" is not easy, is it? Recently, while sitting at a table of Wyoming cattle ranchers, set to give a speech, a rancher’s 10-year-old son looked at me with all his innocence and asked: "What is sustainable beef?" — with a quixotic emphasis on "sustainable." My panicked answer, later.

Then even more recently I heard in an informal discussion with a few corporate sustainability practitioners centered on "how we need to abandon the current language of sustainability."

This matches my experience. The No. 1 internal complaint I heard in my 30-year tenure at McDonald’s was a call for clarity to what sustainability means. My biggest challenge was explaining to our internal staff, suppliers and owner-operators first what CSR was, and then what sustainability means to our business.

Right now, sustainability terminology is for insiders and experts. To the common person, it is geeky, technical and boring. To business stakeholders, it is often viewed as peripheral. It’s a huge handcuff. We start from a lexicon deficit and have to explain our way around it.

How can we evolve sustainability to a language that is more accessible and motivational? That’s what I wanted to find out by reaching out to several communications/marketing experts whom I highly respect to get their assessment of what is wrong and how to fix it. I asked one simple question:

If the current language of sustainability were abandoned, what ONE THING (one way/approach/set of principles) would you advocate to achieve this end goal?

First, I reached out to Peter Knight, chairman, Context Group. He is very wise and his communication firm is top-of-class. He stated that my question was "an old chestnut." (I had to look up its meaning to verify I was put in my place.) "You don’t need to change the language, just make it more simple."

His advice was to pretend you communicate everything to your mother, so she can understand. Then I felt worse, because my own mother really never understood what I did for a living. "Doing good for McDonald’s in our business," was my simple definition to my mom. But Peter said that implies McDonald’s is doing bad things. He got me again.

I then went to the academic arena, and heard from Elizabeth Stearns, senior lecturer, marketing and international business of the University of Washington. She has a real grip on the link between sustainability and marketing. Again, I was rebuffed with my premise.

"I love the word 'sustainability,'" she wrote me. "I believe the word sustainability is not a handcuff, but a word that is descriptive of all aspects of the SYSTEM, so that no one could disaggregate the Economic/Social/Environmental aspects we see in the TBL (Triple Bottom Line)."

She closed her email to me similar to Knight’s, basically saying we sustainability professionals need to a better job of communication, not creating something new. "As a marketer and former advertising executive, if you feel you do not have awareness, you need a campaign. If you feel you have awareness but need more understanding, you need more frequency in your messaging. And it has to be targeted."

As I was beginning to wilt in my conviction that the language needs to change, I heard back from Will Gardner, CEO of Collectively, who leads the best effort around reaching millennials on seeing sustainability as an everyday norm. Will would agree with me for sure, right? Not so fast.

"As an entry point, start with the things people love," wrote Gardner in an email. "Food, sport, travel, fashion, their local city or town. Then engage them in how the things they love can be simpler, smarter and better. None of TOMS, Tesla and AirBnB has won fans by talking the traditional language of sustainability. They have simply designed great products and services that people love, and intuitively know are better for the world without having it laboriously spelled out."

I reflected on his well-researched advice: Simple, Smarter, Better — I thought about this a lot, and put a real example against his criteria: How to answer that 10-year-old on "sustainable beef," or how to take a jargon-filled "McDonald’s MSC certified sustainable fish sandwich" and get more people "intuitively" knowing its benefits. Then some responses came back to me that started to form a solution.

Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan, has an impressive breadth of knowledge and insight. "I think simplicity is critical, but as Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,'" Coulter wrote me. "It is true that there is a great deal of baggage and challenge around the term sustainability. Part of the reason for that is that we haven't collectively done a good job in being consistent internally in our organizations or have been forceful enough in defining sustainability properly (broad, strategic, integrated). At an overall system level, if we simplify or change the language of sustainability, I think we end up replacing it with generic platitudes: better tomorrow, the good life, well-being. These are all fine, but we lose too much if we go this simple at the overall level."

Laurie Demerit, CEO of the Hartman Group, started the idea of shifting "sustainability" to "transparency." She wrote: "We would suggest reframing sustainability to 'transparency' which creates real dialogue and participation between eaters and the food industry. Transparency is a small but growing driver of evolving ideas about fresh and real food."

Although Hartman’s focus is on food, its thinking is more universal. Said Demerit, "It’s about building open and honest relationships, not about being perfect or hiding behind marketing/branding. It’s about being empowered to do the right thing (or even, caring) rather than obfuscating. … Transparency is so much more fun than sustainability because is relational, emotional and closer to the end user."

I asked her if she thinks transparency implies things getting better in the world. Does being open presume improvements for the planet, people and animals? After all, companies can hide behind full disclosure without doing anything better.

"Yes, I do believe transparency implies things getting better for the world in the minds of consumers," Demerit responded. "If they can ‘see’ behind the scenes, I think their belief is that practices/processes will improve to be more in alignment with consumer sensibilities. How/whether these practices will be monitored by a third party or the government is not something most consumers talk about."

Then I heard from the most brash media group out there: VICE. VICE is unique media platform known for reaching millennials in unique, brazen ways. They are the role model for non-corporate speak. Because they are growing and successfully reaching their audience, I was very anxious to hear their view.

"Right now there is a culture of fear and misinformation around topics like climate change, melting ice caps, dying species," Hosi Simon, GM of Vice, emailed me. "It's data-heavy, inaccessible, deliberately confused and lacks any perceivable direct impact on the daily lives of most of the people in the western world. Because we are in many ways not yet fully experiencing the consequences of our impact on the planet, we can't motivate people with fear or ask them to behave better out of the goodness of their hearts, as they can yet perceive what is at stake. The language around sustainability must become simple and aspirational, while being radically transparent." 

What does this practically mean: "radically transparent"? Cameras in the C-suite? Open email access for all? How open is "open"? Is the goal to have a perception of transparency? There we go "spinning" things again.

Aleen Bayard of Footprint Partners also put transparency at the top of her sustainability language hierarchy.

"At a macro/ubiquitous level, we can talk about sustainability through the lens or filters of transparency, risk management, efficiency and accountability," said Bayard. "Transparency should be considered as a spectrum of disclosure to actionable information. In its highest form in the context of sustainability, transparency prompts action."

Bayard suggested, "Rather than debating the language of sustainability, perhaps we should consider sustainability as a new language — one that reflects other transformational advances in our society — that both captures and suggests a new period, i.e. agricultural, industrial, service, sustainable.”

This got me excited. In order for sustainability to be mainstream for all, a transformation is needed, akin to the Industrial Age.

Who is going to lead the Age of Sustainability? Who is going to make this thing mainstream?

Sustainability professionals and many operational and supply-chain leaders have led an enormous sea change in the past decade, getting sustainability on the map for many companies, functional areas and business-to-business efforts. To get to the next sea-change level, leadership will need to come from the silent and invisible experts and change agents sitting on the sidelines right now: marketers and communicators. To date, they as a whole have not seen sustainability as a marketing opportunity to leverage.

It’s so fitting I heard last from Bob Raidt, president of Arc, a division of Leo Burnett. If we are ever going to mainstream sustainability, advertising firms that have created the likes of Tony the Tiger and the Maytag Man could be our Holy Grail. Raidt’s passion and insight are moving:

"Here's what I think," he began. "The climate change glideslope is deeply concerning. We need humanity to have a radically changed mind-set and changed behavior. ‘Sustainability' implies we are okay with preserving and sustaining a lot of bad decisions — sprawl, inefficient and wasteful transportation systems ... the list goes on and on.

"We need a new narrative, one that looks the present situation in the eye honestly and admits to the fact that a lot of poor decisions have been made by governments, corporations and consumers; but that to paraphrase Steve Jobs, ‘We don't have to live with the results of other people's [previous generations'] thinking.’

"We need a narrative that is sharper, one that emphasizes the need for urgent change. It's more uncomfortable and radical, but I really think that's what's needed.

"We need Millennials and Generation Z to embrace a vision that they must now be the new 'Greatest Generation' by not accepting the landscape they've been presented with, and taking a stand against it. We need Millennials and Gen Z to embrace the challenge for real change; not preserving the current condition through ‘sustainability.’ That may create generational tensions. Consider the counterculture tensions of the 1960s. They were difficult, but consider how radically social structure changed in ways for the better coming out of the '60s.

"I think the Millennials and Gen Z need to be presented and inspired by the notion that we need them to be the Hero generation for the planet. It's not about asking them to help ‘sustain’ what is; it’s about asking them to lead a global rescue effort."

Great advice. We need corporate clients giving their ad and communication agencies the above brief and assignment. We need to help support, cajole and convince marketers en masse to advise to their corporate clients to finally unmute the green/sustainability button and leverage their "rescue" substance to consumers to make their lives simpler, smarter and better.

To the 10-year-old, I remember saying, "Sustainable beef is about making its impact on people, the community, planet and animals better and better every day." But now I admit that even though I’ve received a big dose of advice from experts, I’m not sure how to respond next time.

Well, it’s lunchtime. Time to get a Filet-o-Fish. I click my phone and see the beautiful, abundant Alaskan Bering Sea where it was caught.