Stewardship

It’s not the most common term in the CR lexicon, but it’s among the most thoughtful. Stewardship suggests that we care—about the land, animals and each other. Depending on whom you ask, stewardship can be an honorable word, a soothing word or a test of a person’s gullibility. But is it the right word?


How
stewardship falls flat

It's
misleading

It's
misleading

In the context of CR, stewardship often carries an environmental connotation—implying that you’re actively protecting ecosystems, not just reducing your impact on them. But short of measures like conserving rainforests, it’s difficult for any company to be a true environmental steward.

It sounds
difficult

It sounds
difficult

It’s hard to be a steward. This works against you if you’re trying to persuade employees or customers to be stewards for your company and the environment.

It's not
empowering

It's not
empowering

In its classic definition, stewardship is something you do on behalf of someone—or something—else. You’re a surrogate, not a decider. That doesn’t fit neatly into a company’s leadership narrative.

It's old-
fashioned

It's old-
fashioned

Stewardship may be responsible and honorable, but it’s not necessarily innovative. Using stewardship could be at odds with your cutting-edge brand.

It's a little
cheesy

It's a little
cheesy

Some of the most vivid fictional examples trend toward geeky. The Lorax, who speaks for the trees. Radagast, The Hobbit wizard who bonds with forest creatures. Stewardship doesn’t always scream “take us seriously.”


Why
we use it
anyway

It's noble

It's noble

Stewardship implies that the bottom line isn’t the end-all, be-all for a company. We think of an environmental steward as accountable to stakeholders, yes, but also to the rest of us.

It's
comforting

It's
comforting

People do what they can to protect the environment, but know they can only do so much individually. It’s reassuring to know that companies also care about doing the right thing.

It suggests
value

It suggests
value

There’s gravitas to stewardship It takes a page from environmental economics and assigns implicit value to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the plants and animals that co-exist alongside us.

It spurs your
imagination

It spurs your
imagination

Stewardship is evocative. It brings to mind the longtime protector of an English country estate—single-minded in fulfilling his or her duty.


What to do
instead

Apply it
thoughtfully

Apply it
thoughtfully

Not all environmental measures qualify as stewardship. Use more prosaic (but accurate) terms like reducing greenhouse gas emissions or creating less waste, and save stewardship for conservation measures like protecting a specific watershed.

Choose
authenticity

Choose
authenticity

Stay grounded when describing your environmental initiatives and leave out stewardship altogether. Use human language to show how your company’s specific actions lead to clear, achievable outcomes, so people don’t have reason to question your credibility.


The backstory

The term environmental stewardship was coined by Aldo Leopold in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac. Often credited as the father of wildlife ecology and the most influential conservation thinker of the 20th century, Leopold called for a new ethic "dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” He elaborated later in the book: “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

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