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Questioning Assumptions

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

<p>As sustainability professionals, we have no choice but to use the S-word.</p>

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?

This may not be fun, easy, clear, or without struggle or surprise. But once alerted to what we actually are dealing with, we can begin changing our near-exclusive focus on pursuing incremental (or small) improvements. Some efforts will need to go towards developing (and even inventing) more difficult, pioneering, transformational (or big) game-changers. Our antennas will need widening, and we will need to become more adaptable to unexpected problems, creative with our business solutions, and sensitive to what’s blocking them.

We may have to re-think some of our individual core assumptions about what motivates people and organizations (see Kathrin’s piece); how change happens; where the line is between the interests of the business and the broader society, whether that line is moving and becoming increasingly fuzzy; and what new things we will need from our partners and other stakeholders to make our more challenging projects work.

Finally, we will have to take leadership and learning much more seriously; concepts to which no one objects, but are too often tokens in practice.

This would be even more difficult if we enter this era with restrictions like having to exclusively “talk the language of business,” or seeing CSOs largely as only “translators.” The fuller understanding of sustainability, by contrast, helps us to see all this.

There certainly have been many arguments against the “S-word:” the dominant “must show value” business culture; the blank looks; the temptations to call it overcomplicated, difficult-to-communicate, jargon. Admittedly, we advocates don’t make it easy.

My recent co-author, Claire Sommer, does have a point about “Sustainability:” “Isn’t it just a case of “You say ‘tomata’; I say ‘tomato?” In other words, does it really matter what you call it?

You certainly don’t have to explicitly use the term to gain the benefits and avoid the risks. But the term, despite being universally unloved and with all its baggage, signifies that this subject describes something really different from business-as-usual, is worth an honest effort to figure out what those differences are to the company, and the process of doing so has value. The unique core idea it expresses -- that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing -- is too powerful and irreplaceable.

Plus, we really don’t have much of a choice. A field can’t be a field, or reach its potential, in a vacuum. If we divorce “sustainability” what are we left with? Returning to an old term like “eco-efficiency?” This term had a noteworthy ground-breaking role in the field’s early days, helping ease the initial shock from the longstanding “business versus the environment” mentality to the “business and the environment” era by framing the goal as the unthreatening elimination of material and energy waste.

There are also good arguments that could be made for “green,” as well as two very recent contenders: "resiliency" (such as super-topicality, post-Sandy) and "survival" (obviously, given the above). However, all of these either miss much of the field’s core character or many of its evolving developments, or have their own issues of "feeling frustratingly slippery to define," and need to prove they can avoid the same criticisms made of sustainability.

Explicitly invoking “sustainability” makes it easier to pursue several benefits. It facilitates:

  • seeing ever more connections between areas formerly perceived as unrelated or irrelevant
  • seeing the larger picture and becoming better prepared for both the known and unknown unknowns
  • aiming for more win: wins through creative approaches, even if they can’t always be achieved
  • communicating with more stakeholders, some of whom have long accepted, and made progress with the sustainability term in their fields
  • creating the overall dynamics that brings together and welcomes small improvements, while looking for opportunities to pursue transformational change, and
  • helps avoid the overlooking of key points.

So proceeding without the S-word has its risks. It would be like discussing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without saying what that gooey, orangey, nutty, substance is. It is time to bite the bullet on the acceptance of “sustainability” (and perhaps for lunch).

If you’re still not yet convinced, please read Part III (coming soo), where we see how pondering why there aren’t more “Rays” further supports the case for the “S-word.”

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