Sustainability. Sexy. Two words you don’t often see together.

Sustainability is a serious word. It’s about saving the world from ecological disaster. Getting humanity on track for survival. Heady stuff best left to academics, unions of concerned scientists, and earnest tree-huggers.

Would you buy this?

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Photo: iStockphoto/Tyler Stalman.

Sexy … now that’s a fun word. A word that implies pleasure. Tied to advertising, it’s a hook that’s been used to raise sales curves on everything from cars to cognac.

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A very big opportunity awaits if we — marketers, producers, and media — manage to somehow join these two words at the hip. Why? Two reasons.

First, sustainability is the product differentiator of the near future. Clients of mine in the eco-lumber business, for example, have been told by big-box buyers that if price and quality are equal, they’ll stock sustainably harvested wood over the non-sustainable variety. Given this type of marketing advantage, it’s only natural that small, nimble companies are embracing sustainable production. Meanwhile, big companies are sniffing around it, trying to figure out how to best grab the critter — and a few leaders, like Toyota and Starbucks, are already taking the leap.

Second, the connection hasn’t been made properly. I don’t want to say why — that’s an article unto itself. But most things sustainable — from eating healthily to investing ethically — have somehow been positioned as things we must do, not that we want to do or are enticed to do. It’s a bit like your mother saying you must wear your hat when it’s cold. Even if you do what she says, you don’t want to.

So sustainability presents an opportunity to profit. Even better, it’s an opportunity that hasn’t been very well tapped. Sounds like a recipe for success. But how do we make sustainability sexy?

That question was recently posed to a group of marketing agencies active in the field by the Sustainable Industries Journal. Their responses shed some light on this conundrum.

The Bellwether Group of Seattle believes that sustainability, in and of itself, is already cool; all we have to do is make its coolness accessible to the public. They suggest a grassroots marketing effort, completely volunteer driven. If the people get involved and excited, this thinking goes, the people will buy.

Egg, also of Seattle, believes we can’t make sustainability sexy if it’s all about the greater good. Egg believes sustainability has to be positioned to answer the individual consumer’s needs (the “me! me! me!” factor), and defined primarily by its benefits to that person. And then that person’s family. And only then the community, or “greater good.”

Clean Agency of Pasadena, Calif., believes people have to know what you’re talking about before they can decide if it’s cool. Therein lies sustainability’s problem: lack of awareness, and foggy definitions. Clean’s solution is education. Define sustainability, and create awareness that it’s more than just recycling or being nature-conscious. Show people how to create a new, better world by embracing sustainable practices.

Mike Longhurst, the leading thinker on sustainability at the marketing firm McCann Europe, thinks the best solution is to incorporate points from all three:

1. Define sustainability clearly, in no more than six simple points, and reinforce it with unified labeling (the next-generation three-arrow recycling icon, you might say).

2. Put brands behind the issue, not the issue behind the brand: “I’m saving the world. You can buy this and share in the success.”

3. But don’t focus on the “worthy” at the expense of consumer enjoyment. To achieve this, two propositions (“Good for me! Good for the planet!”) must be creatively melded into one.

Therein lies the puzzle: melding a dual proposition into a single proposition, and making it memorable. Anyone who cracks that will be poised to do very well as the world’s marketers shift their focus to saving the world, one product at a time.

So far, few have done this with any degree of success. I’ve seen wonderful advertising in the U.K. promoting bus riding (“my other car is a bus”), and the Body Shop’s work continues to turn the entire cosmetics category on its head. But examples like these are few and far between. And for every moderately good ad, there are 100 in health-food magazines that knock the movement back to the fringe (“Embrace your inner Gaia!”).

So yes, there’s room for improvement. But that also means there’s room for phenomenal success. After all, hasn’t been done well isn’t the same as can’t be done.