IT MAY be the most overused word of the 21st century and were among the worst offenders. But does it mean so many different things to so many people that were better off avoiding it altogether? We ask the experts.
We’re ahead of the curve at FoodserviceFootprint.com pioneers, if you will, of word overuse. A clever little graphic by XKCD (which we can’t publish) shows that by 2036 most publications will be using a certain word at a frequency of once per page and were already on twice that.
In the past year, weve used it 676 times in print alone. Or about 82.28 times per magazine. Were as guilty as anyone for overuse of this one critical word and were meant to be the wordsmiths.
But its a good word, isnt it (?). Why else would everyone be using it? Its like wicked in the 80s or sweet in the 90s or OMG in the 00s. But in this case, the popularity of the term represents its high profile and so the greater breadth of the debate. As Dan Crossley, an adviser with Forum for the Future, suggests: If its a sign that more people are thinking about social, environmental and economic issues, then great.
Sesquipedalians out there might disagree, but the beauty of the word is its depth and breadth of meaning it captures all of the things Crossley mentions and more (health, for example).
On the flip side, because its used in so many different ways it can create confusion and confrontation. In the case of food, to one group it will mean eating local organic produce, and to the next it will mean planting more genetically modified organisms, says Lorraine Smith, the director of the think tank that has taken the word as its own. Organic and GM in the same basket: dangerous stuff.
It can also cause confusion around the dinner table. When I tell anyone what I do they nearly always ask a question about renewable energy, says the consultant Sarah Daly, who also writes the My Green Eye blog. The focus has been so firmly on energy, and to a certain degree waste, that most people dont see the implications of other issues like water and pollution but also issues concerning ecology, human rights and equality.
KPMGs Vincent Neate also has the word in his job title. He pulls no punches, suggesting that the term has almost become irrelevant. I always find that words that mean different things to different people are the best sort of words to use because you can continue to kid yourself that everyone understands you. Whether they do or not is often not the point, however. WWF-UKs head of business and industry, Dax Lovegrove, says forget the language and focus on action.
Just out of interest, what is the definition? The Oxford English Dictionary suggests: Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Hence the irony might be that the term becomes unsustainable and, as Neate suggests, perhaps even die out. That could mean one of two things: its either been replaced by an acronym or theres no need for it because we are living, working, eating within the worlds limits. Or we arent and the human race has died out (a third, slightly more macabre, scenario).
So before any of these scenarios unfolds, weve decided to ask a handful of consultants, campaigners and writers how they define sustainable.
There is a risk that the meaning of the word sustainable is being diluted the more its used. And consumers are likely to get confused as its applied to such a broad range of associations …sustainable business, sustainable agriculture, sustainable cities, even financial sustainability. I see the definition as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
While sometimes its interchanged with the term corporate responsibility which is more about an organisation managing its operations to minimise its impact on the environment and society I believe the two both have a valuable role to play in todays language, and indeed shaping todays society.
Rob Pearson, consultant, Two Tomorrows
I run Sustains Stop the Slop campaign, which is calling on the government to set compulsory health and sustainability standards for hospital food. However, we almost never use the word sustainability because the term is not well understood, particularly by the public. More often than not, when people use the words sustainable or sustainability they actually have something more specific in mind: for example, they care about animal welfare, healthy eating or protecting endangered fish. I think we communicate more effectively when we stick to specifics, rather than using sustainability as a catch-all term.
Alex Jackson, campaign lead, Sustain
For me the words sustainable and sustainability arent used anywhere near enough as there are still too many people and organisations who dont have it embedded in their everyday vocabulary. In an ideal world we would be asking if every single thing we do is sustainable or not and actively finding the more sustainable alternative rather than defaulting to what weve always done. The multiple definitions of sustainability cause huge confusion. The most rigid definition of sustainability is that there is no net deficit to the planet by the action we take.
Sarah Daly, consultant/writer, My Green Eye
Whether there are discussions around moves to a green economy in the UK or sustainable development goals at Rio, the language matters less and its the action that matters more. Many business and political leaders understand the need to update capitalism in some way so that the worlds growing population begins to prosper in ways that are fairer and within the planets natural limits and so now is the time to put this thinking into action.
Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry, WWF-UK
The quantity of use isnt a problem in itself after all, the word economy is used a lot because it is important. The rising use of sustainable shows a shift in consciousness which is positive, given how unsustainable many of todays systems have become. However, the word needs to be used accurately with attention to its true meaning pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability using techniques that allow for continual reuse. In environmental terms, the meaning of sustainable is clear but inaccurately using the term, implying something to be sustainable when it is not, is unhelpful and over time could lessen its impact.
Paul Simpson, CEO, Carbon Disclosure Project
The word sustainable is grossly overused and almost becoming an irrelevancy. What really matters is that business leaders recognise their personal and collective responsibilities to safeguard the environment. I always find that words that mean different things to different people are the best sort of words to use because you can continue to kid yourself that everyone understands you. Language continually evolves and perhaps the use of the word will die out (because it doesnt fit nicely into any particular TLA or three-letter acronym) and be replaced.
Vincent Neate, head of climate change and sustainability, KPMG
What sustainability really means in relation to business is the need to put long-term strategic thinking at the heart of the organisation and what it does. Private, public and third sector organisations have spent years talking about different definitions for sustainability; whats currently being discussed is that the sustainable future of business must start with providing customers with the products and services they need to live more sustainable lives. By doing this, industry will contribute to creating sustainable communities and stronger, more sustainable markets to operate in.
Amanda Long, CEO, Corporate Culture
The term sustainability is being used more and more in certain circles, but I dont think thats necessarily a bad thing. If its a sign that more people are thinking about social, environmental and economic issues, then great. Obviously there is a risk that terms get used so much that they become meaningless. However, Id say that we need more people to embrace sustainability, so lets not scare them off by worrying too much about terminology.
Dan Crossley, principal sustainability adviser, Forum for the Future
The word sustainability probably is overused, and this sometimes does a disservice to those of us working towards the principles it seeks to bring about (although we are occasionally guilty of this overuse ourselves). Id suggest instead that we use terms focused on relevant industry drivers and impacts. For example, how will the driver of changing dietary preferences in emerging economies have an impact on access to nutrition, farmer livelihoods or greenhouse gas emissions?
Lorraine Smith, director, SustainAbility
Its fair to say that in todays world, the term sustainability can mean different things to different people. It is really important, therefore, that as an organisation you define what you mean by sustainability, and provide a clear explanation of what your sustainability commitments are and what they relate to. We subscribe to the UN Brundtland commissions definition of sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition provides us with a framework for making all our business decisions and the execution of all of our operational activity.
Sachin Sharma, head of CR and environment, Compass Group UK & Ireland