Are people tiring of ‘sustainability’ (and, if so, what should we do about it)?

Some time ago, I received a tentative approach from Kogan Page about turning my 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands into a more substantive tome. A few weeks of enthusiastic discussion was sadly brought to a halt, though, when the verdict came down from up on high that the ‘S word’ doesn’t sell.

Earlier this week, I stumbled across a blog post citing architect, Michael Pawlyn, who apparently gives some fantastic talks on biomimicry (using design principles evident in the natural world as inspiration for innovation). In these talks he points out that, if someone asked you how your marriage was going, and you answered that it was ‘sustainable’, that would tend to suggest something missing from the relationship!

It’s a fair point and it highlights a very real problem…

As a father, the son of designer parents, and a self-styled purpose-driven strategist, my idealistic attachment to an exciting future – one that offers an elegantly, ecologically and economically enjoyed existence for us all – is so part of my being that I have to consciously remind myself that that’s not where most people live.

In their worlds, were you to play a game of word association, ‘sustainability’ would most likely spark the word ‘green’ (narrowly framing sustainability in the context of environmental protection), rather than ‘longevity’ (opening up a much richer and broader narrative around our capacity to survive and thrive over generations).

Whereas the former is essentially pessimistic and suggestive of limits on business as usual, the latter is inherently optimistic, challenging us to re-envision constraints as an opportunity to design something better, more lasting and truly fulfilling – in balance with (not opposition to) the needs of wider society and the world’s natural systems.

For my money, it’s the absence of optimism and innovation from most people’s mental model of sustainability that saddles the word with its (undeserved) reputation for dullness and moral rectitude.

So what should we do about it? Well, three options spring to mind…

  1. Make a conscious effort to reframe sustainability in our own minds. One of the great weaknesses of the term (its context specificity and openness to interpretation) is simultaneously its biggest asset. As Humpty said in Through the Looking Glass, “A word means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” and we can choose how to define it – less about soft moral principles and more about hard business logic; less about peripheral philanthropy and more about core strategy and culture; less about risk and reputation management and more about innovation and value creation.
  2. Talk less about sustainability in the abstract and instead focus on being clear about specific outcomes and practical results. For example, everyone wants lower their energy bills and an architect can talk to clients about how adopting Passivhaus planning tools can help them to accurately predict (and reduce) their energy consumption.
  3. Abandon ‘sustainability’ altogether and call it something else. Here, unfortunately, I run out of ideas. Much like the word ‘brand’, if ‘sustainability’ were stripped from my lexicon, I’d be at a total loss as to what to replace it with.

If anyone out there has any suggestions, I’d be genuinely interested to hear them!

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