The go-to word. The ultimate catchall. The safe choice. Sustainability is both a crutch and a pair of handcuffs when you’re trying to talk about doing things better for people and the planet. It seems hard to live without: sustainable and sustainability do a great job communicating environmental effectiveness, progress or commitments. Yet the word doesn’t always have the power to change minds and behaviors or inspire people to do things differently.
For a word that’s used so often in association with change, it’s ironic it connotes maintaining the status quo. What’s less moving than a movement to keep things just as they are?
The word sounds so formal. But more important, products made using sustainable practices often sell at a premium. That’s colored the idea of sustainability—implying it’s something only rich people can afford to care about.
The challenges we face—like climate change—require real transformation. But being sustainable implies that we won’t cause harm if we give back as much as we take. Sadly, we passed that point a long time ago.
We usually talk about sustainability as a journey or a process. Sustainability is never complete; you just get better over time. But people love a win: We need to know what the end game is to get motivated to play.
There aren’t many other words that cover environmental, social and economic practices all at the same time. And since these issues are usually related, sustainability feels more holistic. Accurate. Complete.
Perhaps because it’s related to the word sustenance, the word connotes caretaking; nurturing. It’s even a little lovey-dovey: “You sustain me.” Awwww.
The C-suite is no stranger to the word sustainable, though they may use it more often in connection with sustainable financial practices or sustaining their business through crisis.
Sustainable sounds measured and practical, responsible and mainstream. Because sustainability is about incremental change, it sounds less radical than say, words like green.
Sustainability sounds so science-y and finance-y that many favor replacing it with more evocative words—resilience, abundance, vibrant living. While you should be cautious about getting too fluffy, there’s no doubt that you can effectively engage audiences by pairing the emotional with the rational.
CR advocates know sustainability can be a force for innovation, competitive advantage, high-end design, cutting-edge fashion and financial success. We can build excitement for sustainable practices by highlighting how they make us more successful.
Sustainability isn’t a luxury; sometimes it’s just plain practical. More sustainable products are often lighter, more durable, longer lasting, more reliable, and use less energy. Fusing the language of sustainability with straightforward benefits creates more credible and universally appealing messages.
We love what Paul Dillinger of Levi Strauss said about persuading consumers to conserve water by washing their clothes less often: “It’s not a mustard stain, it’s a souvenir of a great day at the ballpark.” Did you notice? No mention of sustainability at all. Shift perspective with an inspired phrase or story instead.
If you want to get really nerdy about it, the word sustainability really hit the public lexicon after the 1994 UN Brundtland Commission. The commission’s paper “Our Common Future” defined sustainability as the type of development that meets the needs of the current generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Got a word that doesn’t work, but can’t think of another way to say what you mean? Leave us a comment and we just might add it to a future release. Problem solved!