Has Sustainability Become a Cliché?

Has Sustainability Become a Cliché?

In one of my previous blogs, I spoke about environmental sustainability as an oxymoron. The so-called "Google recognition index" now registers more than 3,240,000 hits for this term.

Although lagging far behind this "one-third of actual sustainability" term, there are the new terms being promoted on the Internet — water sustainability (65,100 hits) and energy sustainability (154,000 hits). One has to wonder if the term sustainability is becoming a cliche. It is being applied to so many terms that it is in danger of becoming meaningless.

Let's take a look at the use of the term, "energy sustainability."

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has started an energy sustainability interest group (pdf). "The electric sector faces unique challenges in balancing the social benefits of providing reliable electricity with environmental impact." Four goals are stated:

• Create a forum for a sustainable energy future
• Discover strategic value in sustainable business practices
• Exchange best practices
• Solve sustainable energy challenges collaboratively.

These goals points out the way the terms can be used: sustainability, energy sustainability, sustainable energy and sustainable company. "The group also provides the industry with opportunities to work on a common, industrywide definition of sustainability and a mechanism for reshaping that definition as the concept evolves over time." Is this what we want -- every sector coming up with its own definition of sustainability and allowing the term to evolve over time?

Sustainability is all about perspective. We can take the perspective of the companies that supply us with electricity or we can take the perspective of the organizations that are using that electricity. Energy is only a part of the sustainability footprint of the users.

A recruiter promoting a client called a person a "pioneer in energy sustainability." Is the person part of the EPRI working group or does the person just practice energy efficiency and conservation? Why do we need to call this energy sustainability? Maybe the recruiter would argue the differentiation associated in sustaining the energy sources.

Some might say that I am a bit too sensitive about trying to reconcile the many different ways that sustainability is being used on the Internet. After posting my blog on "defining sustainability," another blogger was wondering why sustainability is so hard to define. I guess the blogger had not read my previous blog. Many of us like to complain about this definition problem without proposing what we can do about it.

It would be easy to get all wrapped up in a sustainability definition campaign. However, too much precious time has already been wasted doing this. It might be interesting to see how the Xerox Corporation has dealt with people xeroxing reports. Does Google get upset with someone "googling" using another search engine? The lack of a clear definition is not the problem. The creation of a sustainability cliche is much more damaging. Energy sustainability and water sustainability will be right up there with paper bag sustainability and disposable diaper sustainability. What sustainability term do you want to launch? Before you know it, you'll be getting thousands of Google hits for that time.


Robert B. Pojasek, Ph.D., is the practice leader for Business Sustainability at First Environment Inc. and an internationally recognized authority on the topic of business sustainability and process improvement.