Sustainability: Can’t We Come Up With a Better Word?

Sustainable: “Originally a ‘green’ term [that] has moved into the mainstream meaning ‘self-generating’ as in ‘wind power is a sustainable power supply.’ Can apply to populations, marriages, agriculture, economies, and the like. The opposite of ‘disposable’.” That’s how Global Language Monitor defined its top word for 2006.

Sustainability: “A good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing.” That’s how Advertising Age explained the word’s inclusion among its 10 jargoniest jargon words of 2010.

The S-word dates only to 1965 in the economic usage of “sustainable growth,” and only to the 1987 United Nations report Our Common Future in the usage most commonly cited today: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So how did such a noble goal so quickly devolve into a “squishy, feel-good catchall” term? Largely through imprecise application. Let’s look at a few examples.

“Organic” means sustainable, right? Maybe, maybe not. Nobel prize winner Norman Borlaug, considered the father of the green revolution, has argued that using traditional organic farming practices lowers yields and vastly increases the amount of land required to grow the same amount of food. If all farming were organic, Borlaug claims, you’d have to choose between feeding only 4 billion people worldwide or cutting down millions of acres of rainforest for more farmland.

Is “fair trade” sustainable? Not if subsidizing coffee production leads to oversupply that depresses the market for non-certified farmers and discourages diversification into other types of crops. Is biodegradable packaging sustainable? Not compared to no packaging at all – and yes, at least one company has built a successful marketing strategy on minimal advertising, unbranded products and almost no packaging.

How about it then – can’t we come up with better words to describe the ecological, economic and social footprint of our products? Words like “sustainable” and “green” don’t actually say much, have often been used to mislead, and as a result have created a growing backlash among both politically motivated and truly conscientious consumers.

The great French novelist Gustav Flaubert built his entire career around finding le mot juste – the right word. We ought to be able to do the same for all the features that make our products special. Lets lose the buzzwords and find the right words to describe how we’re helping to build a better world.

What’s your mot juste?