Has sustainability become inadequate?

There have been, of late, signs of intolerance towards using the word sustainability to represent the complex, though slow, transformation of both business and society.

There have been, of late, signs of intolerance towards using the word sustainability to represent the complex, though slow, transformation of both business and society.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the word sustainability to mean the way in which businesses, media and public bodies address the need to reduce the negative impact of human activities on the environment and establish a new social pact where the three items of the famous "triple bottom line" – people, profit, and planet – are balanced and fully harmonized.

“The idea of sustainability stems from the concept of sustainable development which became common language at the World's first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The original definition of sustainable development is usually considered to be:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Bruntland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development (1992)” (source: Global Footprints)

Although we all aspire to live in a different, more sustainable world, we are overwhelmed by a sense of discomfort in assigning to “sustainability” the heavy burden of communicating a multi-faceted and multi-directional anthropological turn.

A discomfort that in recent years has almost become a rebellion. Over the past five years at least one article or post has been published which analyses the inadequacy of "sustainability” in encompassing what people and companies can do to reduce the profound environmental, political, economic, and social instability:

The Unsustainability of the Word "Sustainability" (2012)

Why the word 'sustainability' should be banned (2013)

Let's be honest: real sustainability may not make business sense (2014)

How sustainability lost its meaning, and what to do now (2015)

Let’s stop using the word “sustainability” (2016)

Although it is very practical to have a well-recognized and largely accepted word to share the same topics, there is a high risk that its original semantic strength will fade when overused. “The word (sustainability) has become so corrupted as to not only be meaningless, but to actually obscure the real issues” (The Guardian). Today, after more than 25 years, the word “sustainability” seems to have lost its original strength and started the same decline as did other popular words with the passing of time and overuse. Likewise, we suspect that the power and meaningfulness of other words such as “engagement”, “commitment” and “responsibility” is starting to run low.

It’s only words, as an old song says, but words affect the world around us. For instance, the word of the year 2017, according to the Oxford Dictionaries word, is youthquake: the noun, youthquake, is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. A neologism coined in 1965 and revitalized in 2017 during UK general elections, still capable of transmitting its power to change. “Sustainability” doesn’t seem to convey the same freshness and idea of cultural transformation anymore. We have probably reached a point where we need to be more creative and start thinking what concept would better serve the cause for sustainability other than “sustainability”.

Nevertheless, Sustainability still remains the favourite word of corporations to communicate a broad range of initiatives and reporting activities connected to health, wellbeing, safety, environmental impact, human rights, diversity and, more recently, to UN global goals. 14 out of 20 of top listed companies ranked as best corporate communicator by Bowen Craggs are labelling their ESG activities as “sustainable” or “Sustainability”:

I personally like Sap’s “Purpose and Promise” for its capacity to merge present and future needs, which brings us back to the original use and meaning of sustainability.

Has Sustainability become a cliché then?

Many CSR professionals and NGO activists would probably proffer a number of reasons for rejecting this simplistic view of a revolutionary ongoing change and would argue that Sustainability is becoming more and more integrated in business models, that it has conquered space in the diaries of CEOs and Board members, that it has forced organizations to establish a dialogue with all stakeholders and pushed institutions and regulators to agree on standard measurements and reporting.

If this is what is really happening, then we should expect to find a similar uprising against sustainability as a cliché also when it comes to how it is communicated. In a recent research, “How to design Sustainability that sells”, the UK communication agency Radley Yeldar pointed out how “the current visual language of sustainability relies on clichés, used by organisations and brands regardless of their normal visual identity”. Most used and abused visual clichés of what RY calls “Stock Sustainability” are trees, leaves and wind turbines as well as handshakes and water droplets.

Sustainability is therefore looking for a new language and new ideas that can invigorate its primitive disrupting force.

The paradox is that the more Sustainability tries to abandon marketing campaign tones and the box-ticking approach and the more CSR is incorporated in the business idea, in supply chain policies, in the manufacturing process and in human resources management, the lesser the need to communicate its existence. This is what seems to be happening in annual reporting where the stand-alone CSR report is losing ground in favour of Annual Reports and Integrated Reports. Amongst the top 800 listed companies in Europe belonging to the STOXX® All Europe 800 Index, a drop of 42% in companies producing a CSR report can be seen in 2017 compared to 2015 (Annual Reporting in Europe, Message).

The integration of Sustainability in company purpose, strategies and governance will establish its victory while simultaneously proclaim its death.