How do you achieve what you can’t define?

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Mark Posson

‘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?


About Mark Posson

Mark Posson is Operations Director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif. During his free time, Mark enjoys fishing, hiking, biking, racquetball, public service and spending time with his family.

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  1. lcthinking

    January 13, 2011

    I suggest using the adverb “sustainably.” Whatever you do, do it sustainably. I just can’t envision it as an end-state of “sustainability” – unless you are talking total entropy. We are going to and must continue to evolve – preferably sustainably so life can continue to thrive.

  2. Bruce Klafter

    January 14, 2011

    I always find it necessary to put the term in the business context. In the business context, sustainability refers to how environmental, social and economic risks, obligations and opportunities are integrated into corporate strategy and decision-making for the long term. “Sustainable businesses survive or thrive over the long term because they are intimately connected to healthy economic, social and environmental systems.” (Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture, Network for Business Sustainability, 2010)

  3. Judi Fox

    January 14, 2011

    Thank you for this post. It really makes people think about setting a solid definition for these words that we use. I have used the word “sustainable” in my life purpose summary.

    This post challenges people to really define what they mean when they use this word. Sometimes when I hear this word – it almost sounds like they are saying “do the right thing” for the environment, social, and economic’s for a company as best as the company can.

    In the end what is long term to us is not long term at all. Even when we think of multiple generations, that is still not long term for the environment or the planet.

    I appreciate these discussions because I have been thinking about what it takes to make a sustainable individual, which in turn makes up a sustainable company / organization. Thanks – Judi Fox

  4. George Gosieski

    January 16, 2011

    Sustainability. I would argue that we have no definition of sustainability since “everyone” has their own. This issue of arriving at a common definition only becomes harder as you try to operationalize the concept.

    So I’ve come to the conclusion that we are wasting our time trying to build consensus over the definition of a “buzz” word when we should be doing what we do best – manage our resources.

    As business people we strive to optimize our resources every day whether they are related to people, energy, materials, water or money.

    Once we cut through the semantics, we end up with common goals and objectives that support multiple outcomes. We want to improve financial performance, reduce our consumption and improve our efficiencies. We want to improve the human condition through work-life balance, community engagement, and the products we produce. Sounds a lot like the triple bottom line.

    The primary adjustments we, as corporations have to make to meet our stakeholders needs are: 1) Embed integrated systems thinking (TQM, Lean, Six Sigma concepts); 2) Expand the boundaries of our efforts (look further upstream and downstream and migrate towards applying LCI & LCA); 3) Modify and add metrics to support the trend toward integrated reporting; and 4) Engage our stakeholders before materially pursuing these changes.

    We need to stop being distracted by a meaningless term created by some marketeer and focus that energy toward further enabling tangible results.

  5. Stephen Evanoff

    January 20, 2011


    A (probably very) belated congratulations to you on your moving from an EHS management role to an Operations leadership role.

    Thanks for raising the need for clarity in the use of sustainability-related terminology. Unless we do as you suggest when discussing the topic, we will end up talking past each other.

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