The new sustainability story How sustainability lost its meaning, and what to do now By Christian Hicks

Dec 20, 2015

Repetition leads to dilution

Say a word aloud over and over again, and its meaning fades and eventually disappears. Scientists call this semantic satiation. The area of our brain where the word is stored is jammed by steady repetition, which temporarily erases the link between the sound we hear and the meaning we ascribe to it.

That’s where we are with the word sustainability.

We continue to come up against this problem when it comes to the vocabulary of corporate responsibility. The word green is the most notorious example. It’s been used so often and in so many ways that it’s no longer meaningful.

But the issue with green isn’t so much about repetition as trust. Too many liberties have been taken. The word has become shorthand for virtually any claim having to do with the environment, true or not.

When people see the word green, they don’t see a truth they can act on. They don’t know what to do with it. So they do nothing.

We can do better than that.

Sustainability means everything and nothing

The origins of the term sustainability aren’t in marketing. Its most generally accepted definition (“to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”) was suggested by the UN back in 1987.

This definition isn’t universally applied, though. Sustainability has become a very broad term. On one end of the spectrum, it’s used to describe specific ecological processes. On the other, it refers to an organization’s values-based approach or goal. And virtually anything in between is fair game.

So, like green, sustainability suffers from being too elastic. But while green lacks credibility, sustainability lacks clarity.

Though discredited, green is pretty firmly attached to the environment. Whether or not they accept its meaning at face value, when people see the word green, most people think environment.

Sustainability lacks that sort of strong association. It can refer to the environment. But it can also refer to a host of social or economic issues, such as human rights, access to education and health care, or the welfare of communities. Some use it as a catch-all synonym for corporate social responsibility. Others use it inconsistently, even within the same communications.

That’s why citing sustainability—even just a couple of times in succession—can render the word meaningless. The link between the sound we hear (or the word we read) and the definition we give it is fuzzy and tenuous at best.

It quickly becomes white noise, easily tuned out.

“While green lacks credibility, sustainability lacks clarity.”

Stories can make sustainability mean something

One solution is to first define what we mean by sustainability, to get our audience on the same page before getting down to business. But that can be tedious and even counterproductive, depending on the medium and message.

It also requires being diligent across ensuing communications, consistently repeating and reinforcing the definition in the hope that it will stick, at least within the context you’ve established.

Another approach is to jettison the word itself and introduce an alternative, to reframe sustainability on your own terms. But, again, that requires some priming of your audience. And it sidesteps the fundamental issue, which is that the concept of sustainability itself isn’t necessarily clear. If you start out unfocused, chances are your solution will be too.

I think the better strategy is to translate sustainability into engaging stories or tangible actions and results that people can easily relate to. In other words, to explicitly link sustainability with ideas or concepts that have clearer, stronger meaning. Brands that can tap into those associations will be more likely to get their message across, and build a bridge for future sustainability communications.

“If you start out unfocused, chances are your solution will be too.”

Christian Hicks

Christian launched AHA’s corporate responsibility practice in 2008. He believes pursuing “why not?” is twice as interesting as asking “why?”.

More from Christian Hicks:

The word sustainability has lost its meaning

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