The word sustainability has failed to win the hearts and minds of people. Why? Because it conveys scarcity and survival, when most people want prosperity and pleasure.
“If I asked you how your relationship was and you replied ‘sustainable’, I’d say I was sorry to hear that,” architect Michael Pawlyn told the audience at the annual Green Cities conference in March.
Why? Because the word “sustainable” doesn’t imply something overflowing with vitality and vigour. It doesn’t suggest evolution and growth. And it doesn’t evoke a better future – only one that isn’t worse.
Pawlyn argues that we must move beyond “sustainability” to a “regenerative paradigm” – one in which all our actions make the planet a better place to live.
Ric Navarro, communications & marketing director for Norman Disney & Young, agrees.
“When the word ‘sustainable’ entered our lexicon in the 1960s, it was defined as ‘capable of being continued at a certain level’. But when Al Gore presented to the world his views on our planet’s looming demise in An Inconvenient Truth, sustainability was suddenly catapulted into mainstream vernacular,” he says.
Since then, sustainability has become a catch-all term for anything associated with climate change, natural resources, infrastructure, supply chains, source-of-origin, the built environment, economics and even corporate ethics.
But Navarro argues that sustainability is relative to its context.
“Ask an Indonesian rice farmer what sustainability means to him, and chances are the responses will differ vastly to that of a Melbourne barista. As consumers – of both products and content – we all experience ‘language fatigue’.”
It’s true that the common language we use to communicate the issues around sustainability has made people feel guilty about their lives and their choices. And any marketer knows that people are more likely to buy a product when the sales pitch makes them feel good about the purchase, rather than feeling bad about the unethical alternatives.
One of my favourite quotes on the topic comes from fashion icon and “It Girl” Alexa Chung, who explained why she didn’t find sustainability sexy.
“‘Ethical Fashion’: surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic… the language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks.”
While sustainability is in everyone’s interests, the way we speak about it is not. Whether we like it or not, words like “green”, “sustainable”, “eco-conscious” and “ethical” make consumers feel like they are losing something. Our language is focused on images of reduction. Phrases like “low carbon”, “zero emissions” or “waste minimisation” immediately draw our brains to what’s lacking. Our conversations around sustainability must shift to what people are gaining.
“Sustainability has lost its true meaning and gained a few unwanted ones: too expensive, too confusing and too complicated,” LJ Hooker’s head of liveability real estate Cecille Weldon says. “In this sense, it’s the word itself that is the barrier. We need to leave the word behind if we seek to draw people into the opportunity that lies beneath it – and the opportunity is exciting and empowering for everyone.”
Perhaps it’s time to reframe the conversation. Sustainability is not about “cutting pollution”, but improving access to fresh air and clean water. It’s not about “minimising energy consumption” but about having more money to spend on things other than utility bills. And it’s not about “reducing motor-vehicle dependence” but about gaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
We all want health, happiness and harmony. That’s the aim of sustainability – and that’s the message we need to sell – the gain, in efficiency, in health, in productivity and in resilience, is so much more attractive than the pain.
Romilly Madew is chief executive of the GBCA.