After one of the busiest and most exhilarating quarters for the business we have seen for 10 years, I actually took a holiday last week.
Among the glorious highlights of my first visit to Cornwall, I spent two days at the Eden Project (a business also celebrating its tenth birthday this year) and yes, I admit it, caught up with some work-related reading.
Both of these events have sparked some thoughts on the perennial questions for communicators in our industry: Do we need a new word for sustainability and, if so, what could it be?
It all started when I was struck by the fact that at Eden I could only find one written reference to sustainability - and that was a statement about the development of the Eden Project as a "sustainable business".
Who was the only person to say the S word on the Eden Project video? The architect.
All the other messages, especially those for young people (and their exhausted teachers and parents grateful for a coffee at The Core, Eden's education centre), were about a "cool future", "inspiration", "transformation"...
So this got me thinking. Is it just us lot in the property and building world who seem so wedded to this word? We put so much effort into positioning our businesses, our projects and products, our corporate ethos, as sustainable. But given that there is so much confusion about what the word actually means (and downright bans on using it in advertising and many marketing communications now) is there another way, a better way, to communicate the essence of what we are doing to the audiences we want to reach?
Framing the issue
This issue was also raised within one of the many interesting topics for discussion at the recent IBM Start Jam - an online summit for environmentalists, celebs, communicators and business leaders to share thoughts and ideas about, well, sustainability.
One of the discussion threads started by Ellen MacArthur looked at the issue of framing - how do we frame the changes that have to happen in order to get maximum support from the population?
Here are some of the interesting points made in response:
- Sustainability must be associated with other lifestyle-enhancing benefits
- Sustainability must be framed as cool, aspirational and achievable within a short to medium term (up to 5 years, say)
- Sustainability must be communicated visually, not just with words
- Sustainability must emphasise the national/local, not global
- Sustainability should be presented as incremental steps, not one big leap that people will perceive as too disruptive
I've commented on these and other excellent tips before.
In the meantime though, back to words.
Ellen MacArthur suggests substituting the words "our future" wherever the word "sustainability" is used. I will give that a try and see if it works.
Other people suggested words like "survivability", "vitality" and "climate prosperity".
An education expert pointed out that she didn't need to use the S word at all - just start with the issues that matter most to people, and don't try and frame it as 'sustainable'. It's implicit, not explicit, and key audiences can label it any way they wish. I am increasingly seeing this approach adopted by leaders in the field. The day will soon come - maybe it has already - when a company's claim to be "sustainable" will sound dated.
Thinner and cooler
But while relaxing in Cornwall and indulging in maybe a few too many cream teas, I did rather like the comment that, to be successfully communicated to the public, sustainability should offer the promise of making us all thinner and more attractive.
So, having checked this out with a few people including my kids, we have come up with a proposal for two new slang terms:
Slim. adj. slang. To be sustainable, or to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability (eg. "OMG, that's like sooooo slim!" - this works well with girls)
Unsus. adj. slang. To be seriously unsustainable, a person considered antisocial and uncool due to excessive consumption, environmental damage etc. (eg. "You're such an unsus" - this seems to work better with boys)
What word would you use instead of sustainable?
How can we get "sustainable" to be the best compliment anyone could pay us, and "unsustainable" the worst insult?