Romilly Madew

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.

Ric Navarro and Cecille Weldon, together with CBRE’s Jenine Cranston, will explore how to sell the sustainability message at Green Building Day on 19 May in Sydney and 21 May in Melbourne.

Romilly Madew is chief executive of the GBCA.

2 replies on “Selling the sustainability message”

  1. Thanks for your comment. We are currently working closely with 47 local governments across Australia to ensure their buildings (both old and new) are sustainable, not simply to minimise carbon emissions – although this is important – but also to demonstrate financial responsibility and to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

    Brisbane City Council undertook a large restoration project of one of the city’s most iconic and oldest buildings ‘Brisbane City Hall’ from 2010-13. Council achieved a 4 Star Green Star – Public Building Design v2 rating for this heritage-listed building, demonstrating that when done right, heritage and ESD can work simultaneously. Energy improvements include: re-wiring heritage light fittings and replacing with low energy bulbs, using occupancy sensors and installing an energy efficient air-conditioning system.

    Although not quite as old, Wollongong City Council’s Administration Building is proof that older buildings can be green buildings. First occupied in 1987, the building is the first in Australia to achieve a 5 Star Green Star – Performance rating. As Wollongong Council’s Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbury OAM says, Council has “demonstrated to the local industry and to the community that you can gain a 5 Star Green Star rating with an ageing building if you use the right methods and programs.”

    And the City of Gosnells has two Green Star ratings, including for the redevelopment of its civic centre. Project Manager Paul McAllister says that “we have a commitment to fiscal responsibility for our rate payers. That’s why we decided to build green.”

    We are keen to work with all local governments to encourage, recognise and reward good ESD outcomes within their communities to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

  2. Hi,
    Just to let you know I found this article to be very relevant.
    It’s also a problem I believe with Local Councils with DCP’s full of large sections proclaiming all these Sustainable measures that should be incorporated in new building design but when these things are included I am told by the Planner in charge that :
    “Heritage trumps ESD” – just like that!
    Why is this so? Especially in areas where there are no heritage buildings and the streetscape heritage is of very poor quality anyway ?
    Also the Sustainable Design fits in with the existing heritage proportions and has no adverse effects on neighbours but still I have been given directives to re-produce a new building that looks like a copy of something from the Victorian Era with no ESD qualities what so ever.
    Surely Sustainability should be given more importance then it is by the experience I have had so far with Leichhardt Council .
    It’s all about “saying we are green ” but not in anyway encouraging Sustainabilty – it’s such a shame especially now when Sydney is one of the world’s worst carbon producing cities.
    Also the Sustainable Design went before a special Design Review Panel but was rejected.
    The Design Review Panel consisted solely of Land & Envionment Court judges and Planners and one specialist Heritage Architect – there was no Sustainable Design representation what so ever.
    I would like to bring this to the attention of more people that Sustainabilty in the Local Govenment Area (our grass roots) is given absolutely no credence what so ever by my experience .
    Kind regards

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