Sustainability Named One of ‘Jargoniest Jargon’ Words of 2010 by Ad Age

Advertising Age named sustainability one of the “jargoniest jargon” words of 2010 that they “wish you would stop saying,” right up there with monetize, choiceful, and the new normal, among others.  They explain their decision by describing sustainability as “a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. It’s not synonymous with ‘green.’ Is organic agriculture sustainable, for example, if more of the world would starve through its universal application?”

It’s no wonder that such a word has been used indiscriminately by politicians, businesses, and media alike because not only is sustainability a hot topic of which everyone wants to promote themselves as being at the cutting edge, but misuse is made easy due to the lack of a universally agreed upon definition.  The difficulty in coming up with a shared definition is complicated by the fact that sustainability applies to a multitude of dynamically interrelated issues — environmental, economic, and social — to name a few from which Triple Pundit’s name stems.

The most popularly sourced definition of sustainability came out of the Brundtland Commission (formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development) of the United Nations General Assembly on March 20, 1987, when it was stated in their Our Common Future report, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In a GreenBiz article, Robert B. Pojasek, practice leader for Business Sustainability at First Environment Inc., criticizes the Brundtland definition as being too vague and not providing a guide for how sustainability can become “operational.”  As it currently stands, any business can claim the title of sustainable, without any formal punishment other than perhaps being called out by a watch dog group or journalist, due to the lack of a common definition that lays out specific metrics by which to gauge whether a company has actually arrived at a particular set of end sustainability goals.   The word’s misuse in the for-profit world is not surprising, considering the market value that being deemed a sustainable business has in today’s struggling economy, where consumer demand to be environmentally and socially responsible has become a significant purchasing factor.

Sustainability finds itself amidst a conundrum reminiscent to that of organic, a word widely misused and arbitrarily interpreted in the U.S. food and agriculture sector until a specific set of standards was put behind it so that only certified producers could use the organic label.  While organic standards are constantly being re-evaluated and are by no means perfect, they serve the purpose of providing consumers with a basic understanding of the practices behind an organic product. 

There have been steps towards standardizing certain aspects of sustainability, such as the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Certification addressing environmental sustainability and Fair Trade Certification addressing economic, cultural, and social sustainability.  It’s hard to imagine a worldwide standardized, all-encompassing set of criterion for sustainability, but these benchmarks are at the very least evidence that people are engaging in a critical dialogue of what it means to care for future generations.  

While this word certainly has most folks confused and debating, my question to you is this:  Is Advertising Age on point – should people stop saying sustainability or just learn how to use the word more appropriately and productively?  Drop a comment and tell us what sustainability means to you…

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Lesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

17 responses

  1. I don’t agree with this and I don’t think people should stop using the word sustainability. On the contrary we all should be pursuing a more sustainable business, life, career or even relationship! I agree that the concept of sustainability is elusive, sometimes misused and unfortunetaly abused. But it’s up to us, sustainability practitioners, to help clarifying the concept and using the word in an appropriate and relevant way. Technically, CSR, ESG or RI, components of a corporate sustainability strategy could qualify for the Jargoniest Jargon Acronym of the year, but that’s another story…

    1. As a sustainable land developer, I agree with Frederick Page and Robert B. Pojasek who are both critical of the current definition of “sustainability” for being too vague to become “operational” due to the lack of specific metrics by which to gauge whether a particular set of end sustainability goals have been realized. However, this is not due to the popularity of the term itself. Advertising professionals may long for a new buzz word to hype their client’s products but until they find something better, I’m content to mine the value still remaining in this deep mine that we’ve just scratched the surface of.

      As far as refining the meaning of the term “sustainability”, our industry has evolved the following definition of “sustainable land development” – The art and science of planning, financing, regulating, designing, managing, constructing and marketing the conversion of real estate to other uses through team-oriented, multi-disciplinary approaches which balance the needs of people, planet and profit – for today, and future generations.

      A sustainable land development decision model has evolved as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions.

      Sustainable Land Development Initiative

  2. I agree with many parts of the post. Often mentioning the word sustainability has peoples eye glazing over. The reason is that we have spent the past 25 years using the word without having a common and useful definition. Pojasek is correct in suggesting the Brundtand Commission is nice but not fit for purpose especially when we need to have answers to problems rather than more questions.
    We therefore should be seeking consensus amongst the ‘sustainability’ and wider communities to identify the most appropriate, useful and clearest definition of what a sustainable society would look like and what we need to do to get there. Once we have this then we have a common language and framework to take positive, aligned decisions.
    Having spent 20 years in the field I think the best definition of creating a sustainable society is the scientifically based The Natural Step approach. Effectively used by many corporations including sustainability leaders Nike, IKEA, Volvo, Interface, municipalities and SME’s it delivers change focused on a clear end goal. The fundamentals of this sustainability framework can be explained in a couple of minutes and it is one that is incredibly difficult to argue against.
    If there could be consensus as to a single definition that everybody ‘gets’ then I think we can recapture the word sustainability which is, to be honest, the best word we’ve got in the English language.

  3. Ad Age is on point, and I think it would surely help if more people used the word more carefully… but they probably won’t. It’s “hipness” as a label for almost everything now is akin to what happened with the word “transparency,” for example. When it starts to mean nothing, we stop using it (at least for a period of time) and then maybe it can come back and be useful. In the meantime, keep DOING the sustainability work and talk about it in ways that we already know will engage consumers and business minds…. without being trendy – like “energy efficiency” or “cost savings” or “healthier kids” or “thriving forests” etc.

    Great post, Lesley.

  4. When will we be happy? Finally we have millions of people talking about sustainability. No – not everyone understands the concepts perfectly, and no we dont have a common understanding – but at least we are talking and awareness is rising. This is a key step in any form of change/transformation.

    So lets not stop using the word sustainability, but lets continue to educate and communicate better. Simons comment above is very astute. The Natural Step provides an excellent strategic framework for sustainability that we use a lot in our work and it had been proven to really help.

  5. During a lengthy conversation with my boss about my architectural studio projects in college he asked “Sustainability? What is sustainable design?” He meant it literally as he had never heard the phrase before. This was in 1994 and since then I have founded an architectural practice based on the tenets of sustainability.

    A double’s tennis match between ‘sustainability’, ‘green’, ‘environmental’ and ‘eco-friendly/conscious’ continues to be played out with the former term being the most accepted but also the most subjective and difficult to prove. Look to nature and you’ll witness ‘sustainability’ in action everday. Look to our human nature and you’ll witness ‘sustain-inability’ as we do not replenish at the required rate, like nature does. Nature practices ‘waste-equals-food’ and we practice ‘waste-equals-waste’ (with a little bit of feel-good recycling.)

    In order to combat, or deny, the truths of our ‘people’ activity we wear down terms that market well personally and professionally. Corporate US has latched onto the word wholeheartedly, created a picture laiden ‘sustainability plan’ and basically continue along the same path as before except now they inflate the 1% of their ‘sustainable’ activities to occlude the 99% of their ‘sustain-inabilities.’ Harsh criticism, but true. Just have a private conversation with a couple ‘Sustainability Directors’ of Fortune 500 companies and you’ll laugh, after you’ve stopped crying.

    The word ‘sustainability’ really doesn’t have a replacement that is equally as vague and inspiring. If we kick it to the curb we’ll have to the use long, lengthy sentences in its place and then run the risk of actually committing ourselves to definable tasks, ie. breatheable air, renewable energy or clean water. Just saying you’re ‘sustainable’ is a lot easier.

  6. What took them so long? In my field of wildlife conservation I have listened for years, at one international meeting after another, to “sustainability” (or, in my area of the regulation of trade in wildlife, “sustainable use”), being trotted out as a justification in principle for supporting exploitative measures for which there isn’t a shred of evidence that any sort of management to ensure actual sustainability (whatever that is) is actually happening. The use of these terms has not only become a sort of “green tie” to justify all sorts of environmentally questionable or damaging practices; it has hidden the fact that resource use without environmental consequences is extremely difficult, if not impossible in many cases. I am not saying that resources should not be used – only that the term “sustainability” helps us kid ourselves about the impact we are having and, in turn, prevents us from carrying out a proper hard-headed analysis of the consequences of what we are doing and making appropriate decisions in the light of such an analysis.

  7. It is unfortunate, but I agree with Lesley. Through over use and inappropriate use, Sustainability has become shorthand for “better for the environment than we use to be”. I also think Andrea‘s speculation on the future use of the word is quite likely. As people (particularly people who superficially use the term) search for more novel words to market their environmentally sensitive (ooh… now there’s blast from the past) achievements, “sustainability” will fade from the headlines. But it’s a good goal so let’s not let it fade from our conversations. Good conversation.

  8. “Sustainability” has no meaning at all, “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, but “sustainable” has a clear meaning in science that has been corrupted in pseudo-ecological/political use. But it is not alone. Another corrupted word is “environment£ which is what surrounds an organism, a population or a biological community.Another is “biomass” The trouble with politically motivatedl take-overs like those by Gro Harlem Brundtland is that as the terms become corrupted scientific discourse becomes more difficult and sometime impossible and we are forced to try to invent even more arcane words. But bravo As Age for drawing attention to this nonsense.

  9. Myself, I was happy to see the word “sustainability” added to the list of high NSF priorities recently.
    It’s a very important issue. For some of us, it is an important “bottom line” — a kind of metric of whether
    we made real progress or just engaged in … empty words….

    There have been a whole lot of words or phrases which represented really important concepts, which got misused or bastardized
    by folks with other agendas..

    the ones which come to my mind right now are

    intelligent systems
    intelligent grid
    supply side economics

    But there are certainly other important examples. (Consciousness?)


    I remember an international energy conference in Mexico in 2003, where a high official
    in the Mexican government had an hour-long talk on “sustainability.” Her main theme was
    “look at what great things we are doing for you.” She had something like three dozen little metrics,
    and spent the whole hour giving a gigantic laundry list of a lot of narrow things. It was a bit scary for me,
    because I got to speak next, and the audience was finding it hard to stay awake, and was feeling some natural
    revulsion towards anything that would call itself “sustainability” after that.

    How to begin, in such a situation? I said something like: “To me, ‘sustainability’ is really a very simple English word.
    It refers to whether we can sustain what we are doing. It is basically just a fancy word for survival.
    When we say we have a sustainability problem, it means — we must change or die. So I will talk about what kinds
    of changes we have to make just to stay alive.” Back as an assistant professor in the 1970’s, I actually gave courses on
    “global survival problems” — back before I really appreciated how deeply committed our world is to euphemisms.

    Of course, if we have a finite stock of something, like fossil oil, we simply cannot to consume a certain amount
    of it every year forever. Sooner or later, we have to change that. It’s a matter of finding the safest, least cost way to
    make the inevitable change. (A lot of cross-time optimization under uncertainty is implied in that question, of course.
    People can still argue about “when” and “how” within this framework. )

    A few years ago, the Millennium Project ( was invited to hold its Planning Committee
    meeting at the headquarters of DeLoitte-Touche. The folks there were asking: “What is this sustainability stuff really about,
    and how important is it for industry anyway?” I said: “Well… you could say… that sustainability is what Arthur Anderson
    didn’t have, and what you need to be sure that you have…” It’s funny how I saw the word a lot more after that
    in corporate kinds of circles.

    This all begs the question: what DO we need to do in order to survive?

    Or, more precisely, for example, to raise the probability that the human species survives at all
    through the coming challenging millennia? That’s been one my main interests for some time now, but it’s certainly not trivial,
    and it’s not even trivial to see the best kind of structure we could use to advance our real knowledge about the answers.
    (Of course well-designed markets can be very helpful in managing part of the information challenge.)
    It seems clear that there are a number of variables we need to cope with; dependence on fossil oil is an
    important one, but certainly not the only one.

    All just my personal views, just trying to stay alive… or at least, trying to set it up so SOMEONE stays alive…

  10. The problem isn’t that the definition of “sustainable” is mis-understood or that people disagree about its meaning. It’s just a very imprecise term and, like that other famously imprecise term “pornography” most people have a pretty consistent understanding of what is “sustainable” when they see it.

    It needs to be the starting point, then, for more precise and specific terms, concepts, definitions and measurements, not the end point. It’s when the word “sustainable” alone is used as its ultimate definition, as in the political sphere, that it is so frustratingly inadequate.

    At the risk of overworking the analogy, when people search for pornography on the internet, they probably don’t use the keyword “pornography” but, rather, a much more precise term.

    Broad, but imprecise, terms like these are good at defining the core, but not the boundaries of a concept. The Supreme Court struggled to use the “p” word to delineate, for example, between prurient interests and artistic expression and gave up at “you know it when you see it.”

    The same can be said of sustainability, ONLY IF there is continual research and education about specific sustainable practices. The state of the art must always advance, or the term becomes a throw-away. How ironic would that be?

  11. Personally, I’m not concerned about the diversity of ways in which the word is used. When I began thinking about sustainable agriculture in the late 1980’s, I was pretty much alone at the University where I worked. The fact that sustainable ag is pretty much mainstream at universities is kind of interesting. Anyway, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and my perspective changes over time. My hope is that lots of debate will allow others to learn and grow as well. Here is a link to an article I wrote about my own perspective on the word and symbols related to sustainability:

    John Gerber

  12. I would agree somewhat with Lesley; the term is way overused by politicians to make whatever they are saying sound like a wonderful thing, when in fact, a lot of it is contradictory to sustainability. I’m a Ph.D. student who’s dissertation focuses on sustainability and what I can tell thus far is that the way it is used in the media is a 180 from how academics have used the term. It is about time to change that. However, I do not feel that a standardized check list, like that of LEED, is appropriate.

    The most commonly accepted definition is the Brundtland Commission’s definition for a reason – it is the only definition broad enough to be applied internationally. I think that the commission did a fine job, given that they had to define such a term for use by developed and developing countries, growing and historically developed in different ways at different rates. I would suggest that Brundtland be used as a benchmark, but that each jurisdiction defines what sustainability is for that region – rural areas vary from urban and east coast to west coast, US vs. China vs. South American and African countries, etc. It just makes the most sense at this point.

  13. I think I agree with some points in the original post and there are many intersting comments that follow for both sides of the post. For me Sustainability is only a “movement” much like many things that happen where large numbers of people take up a cause. This has been going on in the US since at least the Boston Tea Party but a recent example of this was the Environmental Movement of the 70’s, which lead to the Clean Water Act and the formation of the EPA. I think it is wonderful that we are just talking about it in this day and age of “excessive consumption” and our seemingly “disposable society”. The important point to remember with all of this is: if someone or a company desides to start to “Be Sustainable” or start a “Sustainable Program”, they can certainly do whatever and even the smallest things could be classified as Sustainable but to really tout some meaningful accomplishments, they need to capture facts and figures and measures that define, compare and showcase what is being done. Without substanual “changes, acts, policies”, it may be Greenwashing as the post points out? We, as a society, are early in the movement in terms of getting generally accepted standards but what seems to be happening is each industry group or similiar type of business is moving toward some type of uniform industry standards. This is usually based on some body of work or some thought out processes. I feel as we move thru this “movement”, like with any movement, the good will become ingrained in our lives and practices and the bad or nonsense will fall by the wayside.

  14. I think the confusion that Bob P. is referring is really between “sustainability” and “sustainable development”. The latter is really the focus of the Brundtland definition. It is difficult to contextualize that definition for business operations, hence the need for some alternatives or at least an expplanation. I prefer to state: In the business context, that refers to how environmental, social and economic risks, obligations and opportunities are integrated into corporate strategy and decision-making for the long term. “Sustainable businesses survive or thrive over the long term because they are intimately connected to healthy economic, social and environmental systems.” (Embedding Sustainability In Organizational Culture, 2010)

  15. Ever since I heard the word “sustainability” in connection with the elderly/aged population (specifically, that this group is NOT sustainable and is therefore high priority consideration for entitlement benefits, etc., I have cringed.  The elderly, it seems, are not “sustainable” in our socialistic society.

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