Estimated reading time: 7-8 min.
I find the words “sustainable” and “sustainability”, used by many companies today, confusing. In company communications, marketing messages, these words are called randomly. Companies want to show how “sustainable” they are on almost every website. But what do these words really mean, and why don’t we use the correct terms for what we want to convey? If we want to promote useful initiatives to improve the world, we must measure the right elements, report them unambiguously and use them correctly. But I feel that the overuse of the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” is confusing and hinders progress more than it does good.
The words “sustainable” and “sustainability” are in my opinion used too often and inappropriately! Over time, the meaning of these words has changed. They seem to mean several things. So I feel the words are losing credibility and that can become a problem. People become more skeptical of these words, and the value begins to fade. That is bad if we want to encourage people and companies to achieve Sustainable Development Goals! But I can’t blame the audience. Here are some examples of how “sustainability” is used in reporting.
“Our approach to sustainability starts with running a safe, efficient, responsible and profitable business. We are working on broader benefits where we operate. And we help shape a more sustainable energy future.” Source: shell.com
‘All in on sustainability‘ Source: Amazon
“At Google, we strive to build sustainability into everything we do.” Source: https://sustainability.google.
“We are committed to a sustainable future for everyone and everything involved with us. That means both our makers and our customers.” Source: Primark 2018 Environmental & Sustainability report
Primark recently changed their slogan to ‘Primark cares’. It seems that the current crisis has also affected the company as a whole, although I cannot judge its sincerity. Source: Primark cares.
Let’s take a look at the bigger picture and what we can observe. Many large companies have dominant positions. If I can believe the media, some of these companies even have enough money to buy entire countries. As you could see from the above examples, they all show very good intentions. Is it just me or does ‘Sustainability’ seem to be used more and more as marketing and as a buzz word? A serious framework for action seems less important for some companies. You would think that the influence of these companies on making real changes should be great.
After the Millennium Goals (2000-2015), the United Nations started the Global Compact and Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030) five years ago with the aim of enabling large companies to take major ESG steps. But my personal feeling is that we are not yet seeing any real changes in the pace we need. These companies have a cumbersome structure and, like a large vessel, are difficult to change course.
Perhaps the underlying question is: What does companies refrain to be authentic, to be vulnerable, more planet-friendly, more compassionate, and more honest in their communications? We only see positive messages, but where are there reports of realistic or negative results to drive improvements? Are they tucked away in a 500 page annual report? Or completely disregarded?
This is the topic for another article, but I dare say that honesty and compassion can contribute to the long-term success of companies. The vast majority of consumers stop believing a company and their promises as soon as they say one thing, but show another. For example, being honest often gives a positive feeling that people are being taken seriously. We are not perfect as humans, neither are the companies we buy from! Let’s accept that, but be open about it!
Of course I understand that companies are not going to say the following; ‘we use minors at the lowest hourly rate to produce your products’. The reports should identify challenges and include corrective actions. Because we do not dare to name many things correctly, we only emphasize the positive news and use sexy trendy sustainable, sustainability words.
In early days we used the term ‘Green’, should we use other terms to replace sustainability or come up with another buzzword? I would say no. Sustainability does not seem a bad word in itself and many alternatives do not cover the meaning properly. We need to be clearer what we mean by sustainability when we use the word. We can be more specific when we address sustainability elements. In short, I propose that we inform ourselves well, so that you can clearly explain what you mean by the words sustainable and sustainability. See also this blog.
Let’s go back to the discussion of the value and meaning of the words “sustainable” and “sustainability.” Sustainability is a commonly used word and very recognizable. What does the word actually sustainability mean? And if we have a clearer idea of its meaning, can we use it in a better way? The term sustainability has a multidisciplinary use and meaning. In dictionaries, sustainability is usually described by many sources as ‘a system’s ability to tolerate and sustain itself’. Different disciplines can apply this term differently. Let’s take a look at some of the definitions available on the web.
Sustainability, the long-term viability of a community, a range of social institutions or civic practice. In general, sustainability is seen as a form of intergenerational ethics in which the environmental and economic actions of the present individuals do not diminish the chances of future individuals to enjoy similar levels of wealth, utility or well-being. Source: Britannica.com
Sustainability is a popular but vaguely defined ideal. At its broadest level, environmental or global sustainability refers to the Earth’s ability to continue to function in a way that supports people and other ecosystems. Source: https://www.encyclopedia.com
Sustainability is the ability to exist continuously. In the 21st century, it generally refers to the ability for the biosphere and human civilization to co-exist. It is also defined as the process of people making changes in a homeostasis balanced environment in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investment, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and improving both the present and future opportunities to meet human needs and aspirations. Bron: Wikipedia
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Source: Brundtland Commission of the United Nations (20 maart 1987)
Based on these definitions, we see many similarities, but also various perspectives in which they can be applied. So it’s not surprising that it can get confusing. The risk of becoming ‘numb’ and not taking action is high! Perhaps this is one of the key factors holding back the real acceleration towards the climate goals for 2030 and 2050? For the forerunners who are currently working in the field of ‘sustainability’, sustainability is seen in the light of the environment and social ecosystems. We often talk about interconnected domains or pillars: environment, economy and social. In English “Environment, Social Governance (ESG)”. In order to make a given process sustainable, it must not cause irreversible change in the environment, be economically viable and benefit society. More specifically, this indicates what sustainability can mean. I would like to explain more about the ‘three pillar’ sustainability concept.
Sustainability is represented as the synergy between society, economy and the environment. The environmental aspects include the use of natural resources, pollution prevention, biodiversity and ecological health. The social aspects include standard of living, availability of education and jobs, and equal opportunities for all members of society. The economic factors are the drivers of growth, profit, cost reduction and investment in research and development, etc. Clear, specific and concise!
Source: https://www.e-education.psu.edu/eme807/node/575, Credit: Mark Fedkin. Adopted from the University of Michigan Sustainability Assessment [Rodriguez et al., 2002]
“There are more factors that influence the sustainability of a social system – those few are cited as examples.
- Interaction of social and economic spheres leads to the formulation of combined socio-economic aspects. These include business ethics, fair trade and employee benefits.
- At the same time, the combination of economic and environmental interests facilitates energy efficiency increases, the development of renewable fuels, green technologies and the creation of special incentives and subsidies for environmentally friendly businesses.
- The intersection of social and environmental spheres leads to the creation of conservation and environmental protection policies, the establishment of environmental justice and the global stewardship of sustainable use of natural resources. “
I hope with the above that you have enough material to form a picture of what sustainability means for you and your company and how you can explain it to others.
Unambiguity is required to allow more companies to integrate ESG elements. Sustainability elements must be simplified to make people aware and to get them enthusiastic to act. The trend says that ‘sustainability’ is hot, urgent, and we all need to do something about it. I agree with the underlying question of that trend. But to really understand what the elements of sustainability are all about, I suggest we dive in, study a little and form our own image and opinion. That means we have to spend time that we claim we don’t have. And if you have spent more time, it is very difficult to decide which elements of sustainability are interesting for you to start with. But we think it’s definitely worth to go ahead with it!
Our recommendations are;
- Be more specific about the sustainable element of your interest
- Try to be as transparent as possible in your efforts and failures.
- Start small and round it up, integrate into your business processes. Then take another topic. Step-by-step!
If you want to start your sustainability journey, there are many topics to choose from. An overwhelming, confusing journey with a lot of meaning!
Mail Greenaumatic if you want to think about organising your sustainability journey and let us help to take your first steps.