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