‘Sustainability’ means different things to different people. Our use of poorly defined jargon has led us to frequently discuss sustainability in a general sense and many times find we are talking about different things. (In fact, Advertising Age identified ‘sustainability’ as one of the top ten ‘jargoniest jargon’ words of 2010.)
I have been in discussions about sustainability where one person was speaking strictly in environmental terms and another person was speaking about socioeconomic conditions. Once they realized their definitions were different, they could carry on a productive conversation and make meaningful progress.
Clarity, in other words, is critical for success. If we want to make meaningful progress in changing people’s behavior to achieve a sustainable environment, a sustainable society, sustainable planet or sustainable corporation, we need to be clear about what we are talking about and what it is specifically we want to achieve.
It’s now time to lose the jargon and be precise. To help us do so, I think we should change our vernacular to use “sustainable” the way Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it:
1: capable of being sustained
a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>”
Another authority I agree with is the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined ‘sustainable development’ in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Commission provided a clear contextual definition that worldwide efforts could rally around. Granted, the path to sustainable development markedly varies, primarily based on the starting point of each group, but all are striving to meet the needs of today without compromising the future.
I therefore try to avoid the use of the word ‘sustainability’ altogether in favor of ‘sustainable’ in the context the specific subject: sustainable energy sources, sustainable development, sustainable environment or sustainable economy. This clarity has gone a long way to achieve consensus on issues and solutions to achieving the desired outcome.
Let’s hear from you. What is your definition of ‘sustainability’? Can we add clarity and context by using the adjective and not the noun, and thereby improve the quality of our discussion and our effectiveness in making our world a better place?