Sandra Stewart | July 30, 2013
Is sustainability a good word? Should we keep using it or substitute something else?
A debate on this topic has been percolating, if not raging, on sustainability-focused news and commentary sites for a least the past year or so. (See this or at least 10 other articles on GreenBiz.com, or this, just to pick randomly from pages of Google results.) My question: why are we discussing this right at the moment when we should accept victory—or at least progress—and move on?
From a marketing perspective, no, sustainability is not a good word. It’s too long (six syllables—eek!—and four for sustainable). It’s complex and conceptual rather than concrete (green at least produces an instant vision of nature/environment). And it had no prior positive associations for most people.
But hey, we made it work. The words sustainable and sustainability have finally hit the mainstream. When I talk about sustainable business, people who aren’t immersed in the field know what I mean. (And no, I’m not just assuming; I’ve asked. ) They don’t all define it exactly the same way, but they get the gist. A couple more signs: I started seeing the phrase “more sustainable” emblazoned on bottles of hair conditioner several months ago (forget for the moment about what that might mean—the manufacturer clearly believes shoppers will know and care). And a contestant on the current season of Project Runway defines himself as a “sustainable designer”—what could be more mainstream than reality TV?
Yet there’s a steady drumbeat to replace sustainability with some other word. Because “no one knows what it means” (not true, see above; plus, these claims are typically made in forums flooded with the word). Because some companies use it in a way that constitutes greenwashing. (Any word can be used that way. We could substitute the word love for sustainability and some bad actor would define toxic sludge as love.) Because it’s too abstract. (As Matthew Polsky pointed out in a pro-sustainability post, “We seem to have an unusually high standard of clarity and meaning for this particular word” compared with other positive concepts that can also be ambiguous “like democracy, freedom, and liberty. But we usually do not advocate junking these–showing a little vagueness is not a disqualifier for preeminent terms.”)
I suspect the real reason for the drumbeat to replace sustainability is that insiders are bored with it. This happens all the time in marketing: When you’ve worked a long time to make something stick, by the time it takes, it feels stale to insiders. Its faults grate. You want to try for something better. That some people are proposing the trendy term resilience as a replacement for sustainability fuels my suspicion. (Here’s a sample that leads to more samples.) Resilience is an even more vague and baggy term, and if we start using it—or any other new term—to mean what we mean when we use the (finally accepted) word sustainability, we’re back to square one in terms of public awareness.
We’d be better off focusing our communications power on identifying and promoting examples of sustainable business practices and results in action. That’s what will take sustainability from a concept to a set of recognized practices and outcomes.