So, while sitting in the first workshop at the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) Forum, the inevitable (or unavoidable?) question was raised: what does sustainability mean to you?
Hunter Lovins, an academic guru widely respected in this space, led an interactive discussion to discover what resonated most with the audience, which was made up of sustainability professionals. A few things struck me about the discussion that followed. A wide range of definitions were generated, and no clear winners, defining words or phrases emerged to describe sustainability. On top of that, the answers generated were not particularly inspiring or exciting. In fact, they were kind of boring. To bring that point home, Hunter had us describe our favorite movie or television show. The words generated included “engaging, thought provoking, inspiring, possibilities and riveting” (among others) and were much more invigorating than the way we talked about sustainability. Yet, sustainability is indeed a subject we should discuss with passion, excitement and intrigue. We are, after all, talking about changing the future for the better!
So if a room full of sustainability professionals have difficulty defining it (and when we do it sounds boring), how do we expect consumers or employees to understand and embrace the concept of sustainability? While professionals in the field have many different ways to describe sustainability, our research tells us that consumers still have no idea what “sustainability” means. In fact, in our Green Living Pulse™ study, we asked consumers the same question Hunter asked of us (“What does sustainability mean to you?”) the most common response was a simple “I don’t know.”
There’s both an opportunity and a warning for marketing professionals who are charged with telling their company or brand’s sustainability story. The opportunity is to define sustainability in a way that is in keeping with your brand and what your company is doing to support sustainable practices, which include activities that positively affect people and the planet. Here’s where the warning comes in: you’d better hurry up and define sustainability in a way that is both compelling and engaging for consumers and employees. Or you risk playing catch-up and missing the opportunity to be at the forefront of defining sustainability in a way that is both engaging and inspiring – creating real change and a real marketplace advantage.