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

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?")

Alphabet soup photo by Handmade Photos on Shutterstock.

Moreover, even as many practitioners begin to embrace the term as inevitable, a key stakeholder group -- the future -- is saying, not so fast. Erin Schrode, 20, who founded Teens Turning Green when she was 13 and has been described as "the face of the new green generation," has summarized the Millennials' take on terminology as follows: "We hate the term 'sustainability.' We can't relate to it. We want more of a call to action." Schrode, in fact, declares a preference for ecoRenaissance.

Another strike against sustainability is that its versatility renders it generic. The term is so widely used outside this field (try plugging "sustainability" into your Google or NYT key word alerts) that trying to co-opt it for our set of issues seems -- what? Audacious? Impractical?

Finally, there's this: How do you shorthand sustainability? Sust? STY? S? I don't think so.

Where was the handy little equivalent of CSR?

Getting back to basics

Okay. If CSR, Triple Bottom Line and sustainability didn't work, maybe we needed to get back to basics. Maybe Corporate Responsibility was the answer. It was crisp, had a serviceable (if stubby) acronym, and solved the missing "E" problem in CSR.

Unfortunately, it did so by eliminating the "S" as well, a retreat into complete non-specificity. And "Corporate" signaled a retreat to a corporations-first approach, which we increasingly understood to be overly narrow as nonprofits and governments piled into the game.

Finally, what a drab, heart-numbing, vitality-sapping term "responsibility" is. Take your medicine. Clean up your room. No playing outside until you do your chores. Ugh!

Nothing in "CR" conveyed the excitement or innovation bubbling up in the field.

Going global

My first title when I moved on from BSR ended in "of Corporate Social Responsibility." The next ended in "of Global Corporate Citizenship," and did I love that term. Before joining BSR, I worked as a U.S. diplomat in West Africa and the Balkans and experienced, up close and personal, the prodigious challenges faced by poor people in poorly managed countries.

The word "global" addressed these challenges, driving home the point that there was no more going it alone on the planet, that we would solve the toughest issues -- climate change, water, poverty and peace -- together, or we would fail together. "Citizenship" sounded a positive note, one that suggested privileges and rights, not merely responsibilities. And Global Corporate Citizenship absolutely soared above the self-abnegation of "CR."

Despite the enjoyable fizz I got when seeing "Global Corporate Citizenship" on my business card, I had to admit that it was a mouthful (nine syllables), and that it had no decent acronym. "GCC" sounded like a gastrointestinal procedure, perhaps a community college. Moreover, it was a re-reversion to "corporate," an increasingly problematic limitation shared by its simplified form, Corporate Citizenship.

By now we were no longer drawing stakeholder diagrams that depicted the corporation at the center of a solar system, with stakeholders as mini-planets floating at the end of mini-tethers. Instead, we were drawing network diagrams that depicted corporations as one stakeholder among many. And what about grass roots economic activity, the enormous fund of business activity that operated beneath the corporate level? No, "Corporate" didn't pass muster.

CSR. Triple Bottom Line. Sustainability (and sustainable development). Global Corporate Citizenship. Corporate Citizenship. Corporate Responsibility. Eco-Renaissance. Seven terms, and not one had caught on definitively.

By now we didn't all know what we meant, and it was becoming a problem. How on earth could so many of us be engaged in the same set of endeavors, attend the same conferences, seek roughly similar outcomes, and not know what to put on our business cards?

The field had grown up and become more professional -- we were spitting out green MBAs, for God's sake. Why hadn't the terminology grown up? Where was the equivalent of, say, Total Quality Management (TQM), which was entirely self-explanatory and had a great little acronym?

Maybe we just had to be patient a little longer. Or maybe, just maybe, we would have to choose an existing term and live with its limitations.

In part two of this two-part series, Steve Voien will offer up a modest proposal for an umbrella term and acronym we can agree on. Hint: The term is already in common use, and it isn't sustainability.