3 reasons why we still need the ‘S’ word

Language is important – especially when introducing new ideas and concepts. It is important to employ words that resonate with your audience.

A recent report, Selling Sustainability From Inside Corporate America, found that when sustainability leaders talked with executives to achieve buy-in regarding corporate sustainability objectives, they needed to use traditional business language, such as cost and risk. In other words, sustainability leaders should eliminate sustainability jargon. This report also found that sustainability executives play a key role in translating sustainability objectives across multiple business functions.

“Sustainability leaders must learn to speak the language of business – and avoid the jargon of sustainability” (page 3, Executive Summary).

I agree with this report, in that sustainability leaders act to influence and communicate sustainability objectives in business language. However, I also think that sustainability leaders need to educate – to continue to describe and explain sustainability “jargon” so that new concepts and words ultimately become commonly understood and part of the corporate vernacular.

Here are three reasons why sustainability leaders should continue to use “Sustainability” within organisations, so it becomes part of the corporate lexicon.

1. We need a new language

In today’s increasingly globalised world, marked by mega shocks and market volatility – we need new words and concepts to help us navigate the post-GFC climate. For example; environment, industrial ecology, green, life cycle assessment and sustainability. I still see people cringe when these words are used between the hours of 9-5pm, Monday-Friday. This is due to a prevailing perception that sustainability does not belong in business language. It also reflects a lack of understanding about the role of sustainability in business. This is where I see a role for sustainability leaders, in translating and educating how these new terms and concepts relate and can be applied to business.

2. We need a new perspective

Corporate sustainability marks a radical shift from traditional business. Some people get it, and others don’t. In 1994, Ray Anderson ‘got it’ when he read Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce. That is why it is so important to introduce new words and concepts as part of a transition for business to adapt to new market and social conditions.

The word sustainability is needed as many people in business still see the economy as the most important of the triple bottom line objectives, as depicted below.   This perspective is out of context with reality, where the economy is actually a subset of the environment and society.

A new perspective in business thinking requires new concepts and new words. If we cleave to traditional business language, we will continue to apply traditional business responses and potentially employ a tactical rather than strategic approach to the unique business challenges of our time.

3. You MUST define Sustainability, relative to your organisation and market environment.

The best definition of sustainability I have ever heard, is – “It Depends”. Sustainability simply must be defined, relative to the context it is applied to. Manufacturers and retailers of mobile phones, carpet or vacuum cleaners; each of these companies will have a different understanding of what sustainability means to their respective business. When you hear people complain that sustainability doesn’t make sense, is too broad, or too difficult to define, then you are hearing that as yet, it hasn’t been defined relative to their company or sector. Hopefully, this comment leads to a discussion on what sustainability does mean to your organisation or market environment.

There is a fine line between using existing business language to communicate sustainability objectives and exploring the relevance of sustainability “jargon” to introduce and maintain new concepts and apply them to your respective organisation. This is the difference between a translator and an educator. I think sustainability leaders must be both.

If business is to really evolve, then let’s not ditch the language of sustainability in preference to traditional business language.


What is Corporate Sustainability?

These days, corporate sustainability is a bit of a business buzz word. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d heard it used in many contexts. Sustainability is also an overly used, abused and misused word. Many times I have heard it used in the corporate workplace, e.g. we are a sustainable organisation etc, where it has simply been substituted for “financial viability”, which in my view, is plain wrong.

The term sustainability’s overuse and multiple definitions make understanding exactly what corporate sustainability is, somewhat confusing. Variations and alternatives include green business, corporate social responsibility (sometimes shortened to CSR), corporate responsibility, carbon strategy, corporate citizenship and triple bottom line accountability. It’s no wonder the definition can be difficult to grapple with, there are multiple names for seemingly the same thing!

An early and often referenced definition of sustainability was provided by the 1987 Brundtland Report, ‘Our Common Future’, published by the world commission on environment and development (WCED); sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

John Elkington coined the term ‘triple bottom line’ and following that, a useful term to make the concept simpler to grasp and remember, the 3P’s – People, Profit & Planet.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes definition is – “Corporate Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments.”

In short, there are many definitions out there. Corporate sustainability is a reference to relevant social and environmental issues, in addition to the traditional business driver of generating a return for investors. I like the Dow Jones definition that references the opportunities associated with incorporating sustainability into a business, in addition to managing risks.

In my experience, the best definition I have found is that, it depends. With the earlier definitions in mind and reference to the 3P’s, it is important that individual companies define the context of sustainability relevant to their organisation and its unique operations and impacts. Without a definition or statement of mission or values, the word ‘sustainability’ will continue to be misused and this in turn breeds skepticism.

So what do you think? Does your organisation define corporate sustainability?