Sustainability: That Dirty S-Word

By Simon Dunne

Have you ever managed to convince a skeptic of the importance of sustainability by using the term sustainability? If you have, I’m impressed. What about conservation? Or environmental preservation? Or green (unless you meant the color of money)?

One of the big topics at the Greenermind Summit this past weekend – which was a landmark event by the way – was language. We in this movement have dug ourselves into a hole with language; unwelcome associations that come with the language have hindered the mainstreaming of environmentalism. Restricting our liberties, turning us hippy, or worse, San Franciscan. Associations that most Americans would rather avoid.

So it’s time to re-frame the argument. I think we’ve discovered that anything that tries to sell ‘the planet’ won’t work, except with a small percentage of the population, as a Shelton Group study confirms. Also, any policy that restricts, or is perceived to restrict personal freedoms won’t work either, as evidenced by the poor response to any tax meant to support emissions reductions, like this one in Vancouver B.C.

So what works?

Well, it depends. What works for a fisherman in Louisiana is a heck of a lot different than what works for a restaurant owner in New York. The fisherman might be swayed by the possibility of abundant fish, rather than the risk of losing fish. The possibility of a big win is easier to visualize than that of a big loss. It’s the powerful psychological principle that has driven the casino industry. For the restaurant owner, superior taste and health are characteristics likely to appeal to his customers before ‘sustainably harvested’.

The argument is very personal, and for business it means connecting with local markets.

But for the sake of generalization, I think one approach can appeal to all: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the American dream, and many around the country are realizing that the consumptive lifestyle we thought would boost it hasn’t. Americans are less happy than we were fifty years ago (study), and suddenly we’re open to suggestions.

Now in comes a lifestyle that supports health, community, simplicity and freedom; all proven elements of a happy life. That’s something everyone can get behind.  Just don’t call it sustainability.

Simon Dunne is a freelance Behavior Change Specialist, helping motivate consumers to make smarter choices for the environment.

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