Who wants sustainability?

Kids are saying it in their classrooms, young adults are saying it in their homes, and CEOs are saying it in their boardrooms, it’s all over the Internet, television, radio and newspapers. Everyone is saying ‘sustainability’!

What does this mean for the word ‘sustainability’ and the world of sustainability?

The etymology of words is something I find fascinating. Not only do you discover a word’s origins, you often discover its original meaning, something quite different to the meaning the word holds today. I recently read a New York Times article which discusses this cool Google Labs tool: Books Ngram Viewer which lets you search for any word or phrase in Google’s huge online database (Google Books) of over 500 billion words and phrases in books published between 1500 and 2008. Check it out.

I did and used it to search the use of ‘sustainability’ between 1900 and 2008 and here’s the result:

(Click to Enlarge)

Right now I’m still trying to figure out what the percentiles mean but the graph speaks for itself. To say the least, sustainability has become a very popular word over the last two decades. In a different article entitled Is Sustainable Really the Jargoniest Jargon? Sandy Skees concludes that, in the case of ‘sustainable’, it’s not so much the overuse of the word but its misuse that has watered down the meaning of this word so much.

I followed up my Google Books search with a much more complicated search for a simple definition of ‘sustainability.’ I’ve settled for the opening sentence from Wikipedia: ‘Sustainability is the capacity to endure.’ The million and one other definitions available relate to business and lifestyle choices. As we all know, sustainability is big business!

We’re killing our planet, we’re running out of the precious resources we need to survive and we’re in a recession. We have so many reasons to welcome the era of sustainability, and embrace our ‘capacity to endure.’ What was happening before this era though? Oh yes, we lived as we pleased during what was probably humanity’s most prosperous era. Business was good too! But while many of us – consumers and businesses alike – are now willing to endure, many do not want the era of prosperity to end. That wouldn’t be so bad either! Perhaps my choice of meaning for sustainability is a little biased in favour of this argument but it highlights a point: Many people associate sustainability with hardship and personal sacrifices like recycling, driving a fuel-efficient car, eating seasonally, the list goes on.... Moreover, for this group the environmental, social and economic (or green) benefits of living more sustainably are not worth such sacrifices.

This last point leads me to a popular rule of thumb in green marketing: ‘Market the primary benefits before the green benefits.’ In other words, first show the consumer that the (natural, environmentally safe, recyclable) drain cleaner can in fact unblock a drain before showing that it’s natural, safe and recyclable. That done - and while the conscious consumers seek out this product for its green benefits – those unwilling to endure possible hardships might still give it a try. This marketing rule of thumb is moving green products off shelves. But I would argue that, long before the 1990s and rise of sustainability, this rule has long been in use. For example, no matter how far we look back, motorcar adverts haven’t boldly claimed that the car works! To be competitive the ads have to highlight its additional features that set it aside and attract customers.

I believe that innovation in the world of sustainability must, and is, taking this rule of thumb to its final conclusion. Not only will products provide both the primary and green benefits, they will compete with their non-green competitors in other categories too: Imagine an electric car that is not only eco-friendly and works but is as safe, powerful and luxurious as any on the road! Such a car will attract both those willing and those unwilling to endure.

What will the word sustainability need to endure through all this? Will it become watered-down even further? Skees defends the (over)use of the word and the significance of its current meaning for humanity and the planet. She also offers a solution: We need more words to ‘represent all of the concepts, ideas, categories, approaches and disciplines that this one overused word has been burdened with carrying.’ This may help us to better articulate ourselves without misusing the word or warping its meaning but it won’t get the green products in the shopping carts of the unwilling consumers. To accommodate everyone, perhaps the world of marketing and advertising will orchestrate the redefinition of sustainability. Perhaps, in a hundred years, it will no longer mean ‘to endure’. Then, perhaps… we will all want sustainability.

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