Americans have begun to work the word green into their vocabularies, but what about the word sustainability? We’re seeing more and more companies talking about sustainability and in some cases, defining it as more than just environmentally responsible. So in our Green Living Pulse study, publishing Friday, we decided to ask Americans just what they think the term sustainable means.

And we got a big, fat, blank stare.

When not given any context, we’ve found that many Americans define sustainable as “long-lasting” or “durable.” So we gave them a little nudge, thinking we’d get some more defined answers. We didn’t. The leading response, according to Green Living Pulse 2012, is “I don’t know.”

{Cue sound effects of crickets chirping here}

“Long-lasting” did, in fact, lead the pack of actual definitions, followed by “environmentally friendly.” So we gave them another little nudge and asked them to choose a definition from a list. And the results were … exactly the same. “Long-lasting” again came out on top, while “renewable” and “re-using resources” received some head nods as well.

And here’s the really interesting part: we hear the same thing from nearly all the companies and brands we talk with and work with on a regular basis. Many companies have not yet established a clear definition of sustainability within their own four walls, despite sometimes having established jobs with big titles, budgets and sometimes even goals to hit.

So what does all this mean? Years ago, the common phrase was “environmental sustainability.” But today, the “S” word has an expanded definition for some consumers and companies. For some, sustainability is still all about environmental concerns; for others, it encompasses community stewardship, workplace policies, manufacturing processes and more. If you’re going to use the word sustainability, it’s best to define what it means to you. And it’s even better to define it in the context of what you do.

For instance, a food company might define sustainability as being healthy, or using natural and organic ingredients. Another food company who doesn’t use organics might position itself as sustainable through its manufacturing process and end of life advantages – made with renewable energy and compostable bags, for example. You have to frame your definition around your priorities, actions and proof points.

It also might help to connect your sustainability definition and messaging with consumers’ larger societal concerns – the economy and health/health care. If you can talk about how your green product or service creates jobs, and benefits human health, you’ll be appealing to a greater number of people than you will by just connecting with environmental concerns, which rank much lower.

So take some time to really think about how your company will define sustainability – it’s an open opportunity in consumers’ eyes.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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