Sustainability Is Trite

How is the term 'sustainability' used in your organization? Does your marketing team think it means the same thing as your operations team? I have seen 'sustainability' used in the context of agriculture, transport, events, electronics and fashion, to name a few. Organizations want to be sustainable, they have sustainability initiatives, they are reporting and communicating on their sustainability programs.

To many, sustainability is a blanket term to refer to all activities, products and services that take some step to cause less harm to the environment. Its meaning can be elusive and the term is often misused. I come across the term quite often because this is the type of work I do -- I run a sustainability consulting firm. There is some great work being done in the name of sustainability, and we need to continue with this. Each of us needs to clearly define the term for ourselves and for our organization.

Increasingly, I am getting questions from organizations large and small about the meaning of the term 'sustainability.' They want to be 'sustainable,' but they are not clear on what this encompasses. The most commonly used definition of the term came out of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations General Assembly on March 20, 1987:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

This is relevant not only in development, but also in today's business environment. It fits with the concept of the triple bottom line, which refers to sustainability as addressing environmental and social as well as financial factors. However, this concept too can still be vague.

When it comes down to an organization's sustainability, does it mean that they are decreasing their energy use? Recycling? Quantifying the carbon footprint of their supply chain? Providing a more equitable work environment? Enabling staff to telecommute? Using ten percent less harmful chemicals in their products? Installing solar panels? Decreasing the size of their plastic water bottles? Printing double-sided? The list goes on, and companies today can claim any of these as sustainable actions.

These claims have been increasing in the last few years as the sustainability movement has moved from a fad to a trend. In 2006, the Global Language Monitor listed the word 'sustainable' as the top word for 2006. In 2010, sustainability was included in Advertising Age's 'Jargoniest Jargon' list. The term 'sustainable' is also one of the most over-used words in fresh produce marketing.

It is understandable that organizations are overusing the term. In the past few years, sustainability has been shown to attract new customers and top talent, strengthen brand image, provide a competitive advantage, as well as reduce costs and outperform their peers in the long term. However, the term risks becoming trite. Just as green fatigue set in and companies were accused of greenwashing, sustainability fatigue seems to be setting in. This can be seen in corporations that are looking to implement the concept. A recent survey found that the individuals in charge of sustainability who were most successful at obtaining buy-in from their colleagues avoided using the term 'sustainability.'

While the FTC has come out with its updated Green Guides for terms such as 'green' and 'eco-friendly,' it did not include the terms 'sustainable' or 'sustainability.' The term can be used by anyone for whatever they deem should be called 'sustainable' and the only potential down-side is negative attention from the media or a non-profit watch group.

Some companies are taking steps to address this. While there are no common standards across industries, certain industries or types of businesses are setting their own standards. Examples include the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the recent partnering of the Consumer Goods Forum with the Sustainability Consortium to develop a standard for product lifecycles. Other organizations are reducing their use of energy, water, waste, and are sourcing locally and sustainably and are not advertising it. Sustainability is becoming ingrained into their daily business culture. In addition, more companies are reporting on their sustainability initiatives and clarifying their interpretation of the term.

It is true that the term 'sustainability' is being overused and, arguably, abused. This has happened with other meaningful terms, like 'transparency.' As the concept becomes part of the organization's DNA, the focus will shift from semantics to executables.

Sustainability is a starting point. It is a concept that will take shape with specific definitions, metrics, and boundaries. Sustainability as a concept is extremely relevant in our world today and it is by no means trite in that sense. Dialogue about sustainability is crucial to raising awareness and spurring action, and key to transforming our current situation. I am not advocating that we substitute or eliminate the word. I am advocating that organizations define what it means to them and use it judiciously. Careless use of the term causes confusion and skepticism.

With all its flaws, I have not come across a replacement term that is as inspiring and packs so much meaning. We need to keep doing the work and using terms that are meaningful and engaging -- but be clear about what these terms mean.

Anca Novacovici is the founder and president of Eco-Coach, Inc., an environmental sustainability consulting firm in Washington, D.C. You may contact her at To learn more about Anca, click here.