“Sustainability … Can you use it in a sentence, please?”

by Jan 24, 2012

I did a quick Internet search today on the word “sustainability” and got over 77 million hits.

The response was incredibly diverse, with sponsored results featuring California dairy farming, margin improvement, social responsibility and how to “go green and save money.” When I refined the search to “sustainability report,” the list dropped to 40.8 million – with gmsustainability.com topping the list.

The corporate world has pretty much agreed upon the definition of sustainability ‒ everyone’s sustainability report looks about the same, right? Wrong! As we work with clients, we are amazed at how inconsistently organizations define sustainability and how siloed the function can be.

In some organizations, the Director of Corporate Sustainability is given cross-departmental oversight and is involved in a variety of new product development, packaging, manufacturing and CSR initiatives. In other companies, this is primarily a health and safety or environmental affairs role, tasked with employee safety and regulatory compliance. These firms usually limit their sustainability initiatives to overtly environmental programs like emissions, water and waste reduction. In many organizations, corporate social responsibility initiatives are not integrated with other sustainability activities and are strictly the purview of the marketing or communications department.

We’ve found that consumers are even more confused about the meaning of sustainability. When we ask focus group participants or one-on-one interviewees to define the word “sustainable,” we can often hear the sound of crickets chirping. When given no “green context”, consumers most frequently go down a definition path that’s related to durability. We hear words like “long lasting” and “maintainable.” So we decided to quantify consumer understanding of the term in our soon-to-be-published Green Living Pulse study. We asked, “What do you think the term sustainable means – as in sustainable products or sustainable practices?”  The top two (unaided) responses were: “Don’t know” and “lasts/long-lasting,” with “environmentally safe/earth friendly” coming in a distant third.

It’s important for companies to remember that most consumers (and employees) are not in sync with corporate America’s most common definitions of sustainability. Consumer-facing communications that assume otherwise are leaving the mainstream market disinterested (at best) and confused (at worst). If you’re going to use the term, you must define it. And just as importantly, if you’re going to try to engage your employees in sustainability initiatives, you must begin by explaining what that means in your company in simple, unequivocal terms.

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About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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