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Sell-by date for sustainability

Sell-by date for sustainability


Among the glorious highlights of my first visit to Cornwall a couple of years ago, I spent two days at the Eden Project.

The visit 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, 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 at the 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

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. Dare I say it, the time has already come when a company's claim to be "sustainable" is sounding dated.