Friday, 20 Jun 2003


I could spend all day reading if I had time and a higher tolerance for bad news. In addition to reading mainstream papers and business journals, I receive daily online news from at least 20 different outlets, including Grist. Today, among other things, NRDC reminds me of their upcoming court battle with the Bush administration to protect marine mammals from deadly Navy sonar and writes about the lawsuit filed against Nestle for making false claims about the source of Poland Spring bottled water. By the time I’m done, I struggle to remind myself to take Wendell Berry’s advice, from his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

When I read the news, I always look for mentions of the word “sustainability.” Though it’s a word we may use too much at The Natural Step, it isn’t being used enough by others, in my opinion. Which brings me to my first point — that there is a great need and opportunity to better define and “brand” the word and the movement called sustainability. It is an idea that hasn’t taken root yet. For groups and individuals actively working to build a sustainable future, whose success depends on people understanding and getting behind the concept of sustainability, that’s a serious handicap.

The second point of my “‘sustainability” word hunt is to see how the word is being used, when it’s used, and if it corresponds with The Natural Step’s definition — which typically it does not. At The Natural Step, when we talk about sustainability, we break it down into environmental, social, and economic sustainability and discuss the importance of all three. Because our work is systems-based, we are always looking at links among systems. We believe that without social sustainability, you can’t expect environmental sustainability, and without environmental sustainability, economic sustainability is almost impossible.

Our sustainability principles clearly lay out how we define sustainability, yet if you’re familiar with them you know that they’re a bit of a mouthful. (Try explaining them to someone in 30 seconds.) We struggle with this challenge daily. Not only does it limit whom we can engage, it undermines our fundraising efforts and restrains our brand.

Recently, I have been talking with various communications experts to get underneath what might be holding us and the whole movement back in our efforts to clearly articulate the message and meaning of sustainability. When I spoke with George Lakoff, a linguistics professor and author of Moral Politics, he pointed out that The Natural Step talks almost exclusively in “superordinate” categories. Basically, that means we talk about vehicles rather than cars.

Try visualizing a vehicle. Did you see a bike, a jeep, a surfboard, a plane, a train, or something I haven’t even named? Now try visualizing a framework, or a principle, or a system. These are words we us all the time to describe our work; I’ll spare you the rest of the jargon. If you’re part of the sustainability movement, the chance of you understanding us is high, because our jargon is your jargon. But if you’ve never heard of sustainability these superordinate categories will not only be confusing, they’ll likely turn you off. And depending upon where you work, be it in business, media, the funding community, or academia, you’ll need to hear a different message to be inspired.

As a sustainability movement, we don’t seem to be getting enough traction. Yet the issues we work on have an urgency all their own. Changing this dynamic is one of my most important and exciting projects and something I consider and work on every day. The Natural Step’s brand is explicitly linked to the idea of sustainability and ensuring that the word gets branded with the highest level of integrity and clarity is partially our responsibility. There is serious work to be done to make sustainability a popular idea, a desired state, and more importantly, to inspire people to change their behavior.

Success for me will come when my job no longer requires that I explain what sustainability means and why it’s important — when I can put my all energy into working with leaders and decision-makers to make sustainability a reality. Today I must interpret the concept of sustainability differently for every sector we work with, as there doesn’t seem to be a shared understanding yet. I talk to business people in the language of finance, risk management, and market competitiveness. Foundations need social change language, individual donors want vision and a personal connection, activists want direct impact, and academics want theory. We work with all these sectors, and when they all better understand their interconnectedness and vital role, we will be moving much faster towards sustainability.

I look forward to the day when people everywhere understand how the health and future of the planet is intimately tied to economic and social systems, and our very own health and future. That world will be a very different place.