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Is Sustainability Dead?


By Holly Hagerman

Is “sustainability” dead? Is “eco” dead? Is “green” dead? Will changing the words kill the concept? If so, what’s next? Being at the helm of a marketing agency dedicated to environmental businesses, I get these questions all the time.

However, time and again, I’ve seen that ‘rearranging the furniture’ for the sake of something fresh and new usually comes at a high price to a company, a product or a culture. Time is money, and changing the cultural significance of a word takes a substantial learning curve by millions of people. Is that an investment we want to make?

Do we even need a new term? These simple terms do a simple job -- they tell conscious buyers that the brand is aligned and encourages you to dig deeper. They are a tool. But we’ve played this game before -- the what-do-we-call-it game. It doesn’t get us very far until we take a hard look at the ultimate question: Where is sustainability getting us? Do we need a conceptual change?

Simply, yes, we do. I propose we start looking at the world in terms of what’s happening: acceptance.

Like most people, I’m tired of the guilt trip. I’m tired of environmentalism being a political label, and I’m tired of the finger-pointing and promises of a fiery apocalypse. I’m ready for what’s real and true -- a new starting line. The mass ostracizing isn’t serving anyone.

We officially reached the global warming tipping point (350 parts per million of carbon dioxide) in 2008. The planet we know and love is changing -- rather it has changed. Jaw-dropping water shortages in California and Sao Paolo are but the latest examples.

Jay Femiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, said: “Finally, the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us - not just a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions.”

Everyone from the starry-eyed environmentalist to the basic recycler wants to believe there is hope -- hope that one day our efforts will be enough, and we will fix it. However, our history shows that we can’t, we haven’t and we likely won’t because there are too many competing interests. And to be honest, I’m starting to enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s bright sunny winters.

Changing behavior isn’t easy. In her New York Times article, Maria Konnikova highlights studies on human behavior tracking everything from Galileo’s discovery of an Earth rotating around the sun, to how we feel when presented facts disconnecting vaccines from autism. Ultimately, she discovers, “When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.” In asking people to change their lifestyles or asking them to see how they are harming the place they live, we are affecting their identity.

So, if people shut down in the face of facts or guilty diatribes and promises that are too far out to believe, what do we do?

We can start accepting and here’s the crucial part: acknowledging.

Our history shows an abysmal failure rate on the part of climate change (to err is human, right?), but our history also shows us that in the face of a clear and present danger, communities band together in to ‘fix-it’ mode -- with amazing results.  Apparently we just need to be able to touch or be touched by the issue.

If we say, "Yes, we screwed up, big time. Look what’s happening right here," it becomes a point of relief, and clarity.

This morning I had breakfast with the Ami Dar, founder of Idealist.org, and he is the king of this simple approach, and his big, mountain-top idea, will eventually create an ecosystem of regular change. His approach? Acknowledge a problem, identify what’s standing in your way, and use his network of practical change-makers to take the first step to solving it. Oh, and all for free -- they even have change-making concierges and are opening the first-of-it’s-kind, retail-level storefront right here in Portland, Oregon. (Think: Genius Bar for doing good in the world.)

As a fifth generation Texan, I grew up with Rush Limbaugh-loving parents that, being true conservatives, have composted and recycled for much of their lives -- going off-grid in the name of energy independence. I’ve seen firsthand that we have legions of people out there who are willing to play their part, should the messaging and approach resonate with what feels true, relatable and actionable.

It’s time to stop polarizing between those that “care” for the environment and those that are “destroying” it. Truth is, we are all, in small and big ways, having an impact on the environment.  So, follow Ami’s approach: Acknowledge the problem, identify what’s standing in your way and take one step to change it.  Do you think Levi’s saved a billion Liters of water all at once?

Image credit: Zoomar via Flickr

Holly Hagerman is the Founder, President and Brand Alchemist at Portland based Green Rising, where they help beneficial businesses meaningfully connect to their customers. This practical minded (r)evolutionary began life as an oil country conservative and has since taken a global journey, bending the boundaries of what it means to be an agency. A business. A woman.

3p Contributor

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