Defining Sustainability

Defining Sustainability published its annual Salary Survey a few weeks ago.  Aside from all the good news about sustainability budgets getting bigger and more people being hired in corporate America to manage sustainability, the report commented on the state of the word “sustainability.”  Here’s what it said:

It is clear that the term “sustainability” has become established as the preferred phrase for organizations to use in describing their
environmental sustainability initiatives and the executives who lead them. In a recent NEEF/GreenBiz Group survey conducted in August 2011, we asked respondents what term is used at their company to describe “environmental”and “sustainability” activities. Over the course of the last three years, the term “sustainability” has become the standard-bearer for these activities, with nearly half (49 percent) identifying that term, up from 34 percent in 2008.

Most of our clients use  “sustainability” to describe what they’re doing as well. But here’s the catch:  one company’s definition of the word may not be the same as another company’s definition. For some, “sustainability” strictly covers environmental initiatives. For others, “sustainability” covers CSR initiatives as well. And on and on.

We’ve seen that American consumers have a variety of definitions too – so we’re including a series of questions in our Green Living Pulse survey (which will go in the field next week) to pin them down on what they think it really means – and what they think it should mean to companies. Specifically, we’re asking them, “if you could sit down with the CEO of a major corporation and tell him to only focus on two sustainability initiatives, what would you tell him to focus on?” And then we’ll offer a list of every kind of activity we’ve ever seen umbrella-ed under the word “sustainability.”

The findings should give us all clarity about whether what we’re all communicating when we throw around the word is what we mean to be communicating. And perhaps that will help our Fortune 500 get on the same page about the meaning as well.

A great deal of the work we do with our clients is to help them create their own definition of sustainability first – one that makes sense in the context of their brand – so we can then communicate that in a way that rings true in the marketplace. Because at the end of the day, the most powerful sustainability message is one that rings true with how consumers perceive the word AND how they perceive the brand saying it.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *