3 December 2012 –Do we need the “S” word? Matthew Polsky,  a US based sustainability change-agent to business argues in Greenbiz,  yes. And finds some convincing reasons to counter the move towards dropping the word “sustainability” altogether. Just one of these is to remind us all that the future of the planet is as stake. Just one of those reasons is the future of the planet. (See recent reports from Doha for evidence that is now critical).

Do we really need to use the “S-word” – sustainability –  in order to talk about sustainability? Joel Makower originally posed this question (and answered with a “no”). This strikes me as one of the classic questions for our still-young field, one that goes to its core, and which will be raised again and again.

The polar extremes of response to the question are: “Sustainability just doesn’t resonate with my audiences, I can make changes in my organization without it, so who needs it?” versus “How can you possibly talk about a subject without mentioning the main way you refer to that subject?” I aim to speak both to the critics at the first pole, as well as those who want to take the sustainability term further.

I’ve already had two small bites at this apple. As a comment directly on the original piece, I emphasised:

  • The doubly ironic point that the very success of sustainability-labelled initiatives by companies over the years, important in its own right, is also a response to very different criticisms of the term raised by two other audiences: some environmentalists and the Tea Party. Some environmentalists see sustainability as business co-option of environmentalism and the acceptance of mediocrity as the bar. The Tea Party sees it as UN-initiated, sneaky socialism.
  • We seem to have an unusually high standard of clarity and meaning for this particular word than for other mostly very admired words which can also be ambiguous and argued over like democracy, freedom, and liberty. But we usually do not advocate junking these, showing a little vagueness is not a disqualifier for preeminent terms
  • The term can express fundamental core concepts and hold potentially irreplaceable benefits which would be greatly missed in its absence.

(I also wondered, rhetorically, why in my years in this field I keep running into so many “S-words,” most of which are not particularly pleasant; such as soot, sludge, and worse.)

I also directly commented on a Kathrin Winkler piece whose title defended the “S-word.” I agreed with her rarely made points that implied the motives behind the actions of sustainability-pursuing businesspeople do matter, as do peoples’ values. I added that as sustainability includes these tenets, the argument would be even stronger by invoking the term.

I also appreciated her discussion of the importance of higher reasons for sustainability, like “the future of the planet,” which, as she points out, can be difficult to talk about.

However, I added that as this is the major internal motive for why some of us do what we do, we have to overcome any reluctance we feel and increasingly bring this point into sustainability discussions.

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