Is sustainability getting too clever for its own good?

Every month there appears to be a new buzzword on the block, seeking to define the trends shaping green business. But as the language evolves, could it be in danger of becoming too self-serving and elitist? Maxine Perella reports

Any sustainable movement is ultimately about survival, whether it relates to businesses, natural environments or communities. The messages it carries therefore should be underlined with simple, powerful concepts that have the ability to engage and influence the right stakeholders in order to drive collaboration and deliver the outcomes that matter. However, some experts in this field feel increasingly that such movements are losing sight of that – not least in the business arena where interest in this topic has intensified in recent years.

The problem primarily, is one of language and intellectualised clutter. Attend any corporate sustainability conference these days and you’ll likely be treated to the latest thinking around grand theories such as ‘net positive’, ‘disruptive innovation’ and ‘collaborative consumption’ – not to mention a ‘game-changing paradigm shift’ or two. Likewise with social media, sustainability practitioners seem intent on filling their twitter timelines and linkedin updates with high-brow terminology.

The question is, what does all of this intellectualising really mean, and does it serve any viable use at all? Sustainability consultant Gareth Kane who heads up Terra Infirma feels this current love affair with language could be in danger of alienating wider audiences.

He recalls having to look up the term ‘endo-symbiosis’ once to describe some sustainable process. It was, he notes, “a very precise and obscure biological term meaning one organism evolving inside of another”. “The sustainability agenda has to keep stretching itself and not become complacent, but there are far too many people in it who seem to want to create a high priesthood for sustainability.

That is completely the wrong attitude, he says. “If you want to mainstream sustainability, it has to be open and intuitive rather than a dark mystery. As sustainability practitioners, we have to let go of our ego and be humble enough to see the world through the eyes of the general public and frame sustainability in a way that appeals to them.”

Kane rightly points out that the environment doesn’t care whether we emit a kilogram of carbon dioxide from a sports car or from listening to whale music – it’s a kilogram of carbon dioxide either way. That’s what business needs to address, he asserts, not nebulous concepts around mindfulness.

If sustainable business is to continue to remain relevant – not just to itself, but society at large – then those egos must be sacrificed. “We are all very passionate about our learning, but none of that is relevant if nothing changes on the ground.”

Environmental business adviser Brendan May of Robertsbridge Group echoes this view – he goes so far as to suggest that the sustainable business circuit is becoming a jargon-filled parody of itself. “Very clear and simple concepts about the urgent imperatives that we need to address are being window-dressed in this blanket of jargon and clever phrases. None of this really addresses any of the big issues … we need to return to a more grounded environmentalism around what it is that business can do and should do,” he argues.

Part of the problem he feels is that what once began as a movement has now become an industry and consequently academised. “This is the kind of thing that happens and we have taken our eye off the ball in how we tackle some pretty fundamental issues. Listening to Western academics preach on about less consumption and having a zero growth economy – it all sounds terrific in practice, but it’s complete pie in the sky. We have to focus on the battles that we can win.

“When we take the really huge issues – biodiversity loss, the fossil fuel crisis, climate change, the state of the world’s fish stocks – these determine the planetary boundaries that we can sustain, and we have to look at which forums, which organisations, which companies, which NGOs have had a level of success in tackling those problems at a fundamental level. What metrics can we devise to determine whether we have succeeded or failed? Clearly the answer will be failure.”

Business leader Simon Graham, environmental strategist at Commercial Group, has a slightly different take. He feels that the environmental industry has grown up and as such, the challenge for sustainability managers has got more complex – it’s now about systems thinking rather than simple resource efficiency.

Hence the language is evolving to take account of this more ambitious approach. “The position of chief sustainability officer now exists, and the language of policy drive in that sense might be changing. Every industry needs a jargon … it provides shortcuts in terms of explanation. The challenge is when it breaks out of the area where it is supposed to be,” he notes.

Asked whether he thinks the language is moving to an inappropriate place, Graham says: “The analogy could be that we are used to reading factual books using factual language and then someone presents us with a factual book using fictional language, and we are not sure what it is – is it fact or now fiction? There is an uncomfortableness sometimes when we are bridging those gaps.”

Interestingly he acknowledges that there is now an emergent tension which may be contributing to confusion over what terminology to employ; as sustainability becomes mainstream, the industry underpinning it is struggling to define what it is actually there for. “How does sustainability now add value when it’s becoming business as usual?” he questions.

It’s a view echoed by Kane, with a degree of irony. “Things which ten years ago would have been seen as green such as ISO 14001 and energy-efficient lightbulbs, are just seen as normal now. A lot of things that were regarded as specialist are becoming commoditised, but we’ve got to accept that’s a sign of success. Ultimately, our ambition as a sustainability industry should be to make ourselves redundant because then our job will be done.”

Whether or not you feel that the sustainable business movement is too busy carving out an elitist niche for itself, one thing is clear – its practitioners certainly wouldn’t wish to talk themselves out of a job. That would be far too ‘disruptive’.

Read the latest output of the Resource Revolution, Making circular relevant: a business blueprint – an essential guide for any organisation that is looking for practical help on how to drive resource efficiency as a first step on the path to a circular business model.

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