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A New Vocabulary for Responsible Business: Words That Encourage


By Mark Brownlie

Are you tired of re-conceptualizing the paradigm to optimize competencies? Sometimes the words we use at work do more to baffle than to communicate clearly.

In reality, we speak many languages in our companies — legalese, engineering 301, advanced human resources, fluent finance — all sorts of corporate-speak.

If we keep using language that doesn’t communicate well, or worse, that gives the wrong impression, we’ll continue to have problems in becoming better businesses and a better society. I’m not proposing that we adopt a new language, but we do need to infuse our current lingo with some words and concepts that encourage a better future.

Lets speak less about this… And more about this...
Sustainability Thriving
Manage risk Capitalize on opportunity
Growth Development
Shareholder value Shared value
Reductions Contributions
Stakeholder management Stakeholder engagement

From "sustain" to "thrive"

Many leading companies are pursuing sustainability -- in a sense, respecting the needs of future generations. But taken at face value, what does that word communicate? When you sustain something, you’re just keeping it going. It speaks nothing to the quality of that thing. Instead of sustainability, companies should strive to thrive -- moving from hanging on to flourishing.

From "growth" to "development"

One of the primary stated objectives of most businesses and governments is growth. If someone really thinks that growth is sustainable in the long run, they haven’t heard the story about lynx and hare populations. Bigger isn’t always better. A company can grow so big that it limits its agility. Development connotes improvement, not necessarily size. If we were to replace economic or community growth with economic or community development, then we might see fewer objections from NGOs and more collaboration.

From "shareholder" to "shared" value

What drives that desire for growth are the handcuffs of needing to create shareholder value. Shareholders might provide the financial wherewithal to operate, but other stakeholders provide the human, social, built and natural capital to succeed. In recognition of the role that employees, communities, governments and others have in helping to create corporate value, we need to start transforming shareholder value into shared value.

From "risk" to "opportunity"

In response to the question of why a company is taking on a specific project, one of the typical answers is to manage or mitigate risk. The more we talk about capitalizing on opportunity instead, the more we look at achieving rather than avoiding. Risk committees and departments might better serve companies by adding opportunity to their names, and to their mandates.

From "reductions" to "contributions," from "management" to "engagement"

In sustainability reports we often read about how companies are minimizing their environmental impacts by reducing pollution or water use. What we don’t hear enough about are the positive long-term contributions they make. In those same sustainability reports we sometimes read about stakeholder management. Most stakeholders would rather be engaged than managed. Or we read about the employee turnover rate. Wouldn’t a retention rate more positively communicate the same data?


A new vocabulary for responsible business is not just about semantics or trying to put a spin on things. Words can encourage or discourage. Words matter.

What phrases or jargon would you like to see replaced with words that encourage? 

Image credit: Gavin Llewellyn

Mark Brownlie is Chief Executive of Responsibility Matters Inc., a Calgary-based advisory firm helping companies and non-profits with sustainability strategies and communications.

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