Sustainability Needs to Move From Gloom to Hope

Language matters. So why is the sustainability community still stuck on the images of reduction such as "zero," "low carbon," "energy efficiency" or "350"? Isn't it time we started using more emotional vernacular like "sexy," "unique" and "comfy"?
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Sustainability is dead. Or at least the entire language we use to talk about it to consumers should be buried.

Fashion icon and eco-advocate Alexa Chung sums up the problem nicely in British Vogue:

'Ethical Fashion': surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic... the language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags, and other things I'd rather not swathe my body in, thanks.

In an effort to shape more sustainable consumerism in China, my non-profit JUCCCE looks at aspirations of the enormous middle class -- over 450 million today, growing to 800 million by 2025, according to Helen Wang, author of The Chinese Dream. Let's face it, the ladies who lunch and meet over mani-pedis are not likely to be swayed by words such as "circular economy" or "collaborative consumption."

The key issue at stake is scale. We need to remake the lexicon of sustainability if we are to move beyond preaching to the choir and gain serious mindshare of the less interested masses.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2013, choice expert Sheena Iyengar argued that, in purchasing behavior, people are motivated more by love than by guilt. If we love to do something, we will still do it even if we know it's bad.

Sustainability messaging must shift hard from a focus on abstract responsibility to one that helps people make subconscious choices that make them feel good about themselves. We need to speak to the heart, not to the head.

Julian Borra, the former Global Creative Director of Saatchi S, calls this the "irresistibility factor." "Making the conversation around sustainable consumption sexy and locally relevant is critical to transformative levels of behavior change."

Actress Joanna Lumley, ambassador for Marks & Spencer's Shwopping program, simply says in British glossie fashionista speak, "Just make it gorgeous, dahling."

"Naming is important," affirms Richard Gillies, Director of Plan A and Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer.

"Shwoppping is an fun name that has engaged people by the millions, making it accessible to fashion influencers and style leaders. I don't think we'd have gotten a second glance if we called it the 'M&S and Oxfam Clothes Recycling Initiative.'"

Perhaps we convert media king Ryan Seacrest, who has subverted the image of success in the American Dream into an orgy of conspicuous consumption with shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, into a sustainability advocate? If so, could he bring bling into sustainability?

Robin Wight, President of Engine Advertising Group, suggests that 'sustainability' needs a big injection of 'status'. He suggests that it is the constant pitting of 'doing good' against 'showing our status' that stymies sustainable behavior. Perhaps it is time for sustainability purists to embrace the 'dark arts' of advertising and learn how to entice and excite people into change.

Language matters. So why is the sustainability community still stuck on the images of reduction such as "zero," "low carbon," "energy efficiency" or "350"? Isn't it time we started using more emotional vernacular like "sexy," "unique" and "comfy"?

How do we talk in a way that shapes the aspirations of people, so that those aspirations are implicitly sustainable? As Jonah Sachs urges in his book Winning the Story Wars, a entire new myth must be crafted and told in a way that moves the masses away from the story that says "good citizens are consumers who drive the economy and drive social progress." This, he explains, was a specific story the U.S. government called on marketers to develop in the post-Second World War years when America was faced with an economic crisis. "Consumption became the highest expression of individual liberty and national pride," Sachs writes. Today he calls on us to remake our dreams.

JUCCCE is doing just that with the co-creation of a new China Dream called the "Harmonious Happy Dream." In the China Dream vision of a better quality of life each focus area is phrased as an aspiration, but drives sustainable behavior. "Transit-oriented design" becomes "convenient, metro-centered living." "Trigenerational developments" becomes "vibrant living." "Pollution reduction" becomes "safe food and water." Sterile academic wording is replaced with personal benefits. In fact, the word "sustainability" is entirely replaced with the phrase "harmonious happy 和悦." A reframing of language is one key step in JUCCCE's plans to activate new social norms in China.

A UK Dream spinoff incubated by Best Foot Forward (#TheUKDream) launched March 7 in London with a workshop on redefining the visual, spoken and written, symbolic language of sustainability towards more personal visions of sustainable aspiration. "A far cry from sandals and moralizing," UK Dream Director and Co-curator Vicky Grinnell-Wright called the event's 30 diverse opinion leaders from ad agencies, brands and policy areas.

This paired effort is significant because it calls for reimagining prosperity and social norms in both a developing and a developed nation.

Fearful of not being taken seriously, policy wonks, scientists and academics in the narrowly contained sustainability community are not naturally wired to use the language of emotion. Curators like JUCCCE and Best Foot Forward are working to broaden conversations around sustainability by building connections between these experts and people in other fields, including advertising, movie production, marketing, behavioral psychology and religion. These storytellers can be instrumental in lending a personality to the sustainability movement.

In pointing out what makes a successful movie, Philip Muhl, a major movie executive formerly of Disney, says that no one wants to watch a movie where the world is going to end and we're all going to die. But we all love a good drama that shows us how screwed we can be, and yet the human race still perseveres. We go to movies for hope. How can environmentalists move from climate weary white papers to magnetic box office-style stories?

It's time to spread a little less doom and put aside geek speak, and tell a shinier, brighter story that everyone wants to be a part of.

A version of this article appeared March 12, 2013, in, with the headline 'Sustainability is Dead'.

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