Is “Sustainability” sustainable?

Words like Green and Sustainability have undergone rapid transformation.  They have moved quickly from being signals of leadership to wallpaper – labels for any form of goodness, nearly bereft of meaning.  The leaders in corporate good have become the victims of fast followers who label anything beneficial with the same terms, confusing stakeholders, and neutering others’ legitimate claims.  Here is Seth Godin talking on Ad Age about the insincerity of green marketing (ff to 3:20 if you want to abbreviate), and the promise of the few authentic efforts:


The terms themselves are challenging to interpret.  Green:  this is a color.  Since it is the color of trees, this word has been co-opted to signal anything that is a boon to flora.  So, if a company turns off the lights at night — which saves electricity, which reduces the emissions of coal-fired power plants, which reduces greenhouse gasses, which reduces global warming, which reduces catastrophic weather shifts, which reduces desertification, which preserves green plants – they put a “Green” claim on their packaging.  The company might be the most water wasting, truck driving, forest paving in its industry, but turning off the lights allows them to claim Green.  And Green has been stretched further, to encompass anything that benefits the natural world, whatever its color.

More difficult to digest is Sustainability.  The word sustainable indicates that something can last a long time.  So when companies claim to be leaders in Sustainability, does this mean they lead in making things last forever?  In fairness, I think this is generally what people are claiming:  “our sustainability practices ensure that the resources we and our customers use do not become depleted.”  But it is an unwieldy word, being used in an unfamiliar way.  And again, people are pitching the Sustainability tent over anything beneficial.  I think a Samuel Johnson is apt:  “he who praises everyone praises no one.”  If everything is sustainable and green, then nothing is.

I’d love to see two things:  1) consensus definitions of terms, with criteria for use of those terms (see earlier post on Burt’s Bees and Natural); and 2) better terms, where the meaning is plain.  Here is my simplistic proposal.  “Responsibility” can label a broad set of beneficial things impacting society, the human condition, the environment.  “Stewardship” can be used to label efforts to take good care of things that don’t belong to us (generally, the natural environment).    Stewardship would be a subset of Responsibility.  I.e.,  “Hi, I’m Nicole.  I work in the Responsibility office of Toyota.  I’m in charge of Stewardship, so I work closely with our electric car effort.”

So, how to set and uphold standards?  Not easy.  Perhaps the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen could take this up as a side item.  A quorum of government and industry representatives could review and endorse proposals for definition of terms, and standards for these terms.  Ideally, they would also endorse a small number of  logo programs designed to uphold these standards (see for 300 logos currently available…ugh).  One of the most promising of these is the B (for beneficial) Corporation certification:  highly rigorous standards and audits applying best practices from many sources.

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Organizations abiding by the rules of such programs may use the logos, and would pay a nominal amount to fund an administration and promotional efforts.  To give weight to the UN’s endorsement, they should award the winning programs a few million dollars to help them generate market traction.  Why would the vaunted UNFCCC care about something as crass as a marketing/logo program?  Eventually, market forces may sort out these standards, since the consumer is willing to reward social and eco goodness.  But a program of this sort will accelerate the process by making it easier for consumers to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Consumers will send resources to the most eco-friendly businesses, which benefits the environment, etc…reducing reliance on elusive global consensus in emissions policy.


1 Response to “Is “Sustainability” sustainable?”

  1. 1 Daniel Woldorff March 4, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Hey Mr. Merrigan,

    I dig the programs to certify being “sustainable.” The same thing has happened with “local” (a local CAFO is “local”), and those desirous of a more accurate term seem to have taken to “locally sourced,” but where there’s demand and no certification, the name still risks co-optation by unsustainable business (understandably so). I wonder what sort of demand such sustainability brands/certificates could eventually generate (sounds like a market-driven approach to giving sustainable businesses a leg up) and whether there’s a future in studying something like that… ha.

    I was looking up Spotlight Solar and made my way to your blog… I also have to do a current event for AP US Gov., so thank you kindly for an interesting topic!

    My best,

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