Why ‘sustainability’ is falling short

Posted by: Georgie Howlett

Tags: communications environment PR public relations sustainability

Before I get carried away, it’s pertinent to point out that this was first mooted nearly a decade ago. I am not saying anything new here. But like with any change, there are the early adopters, the pioneers, the people who have an idea almost too soon. Real change occurs a while later, at the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell so aptly put it.

Never has the welfare of our beautiful blue planet been so high on the public agenda. Maybe some businesses are talking about it because they’ve realised their customers are starting to vote with their wallets and they are only interested in the bottom line, and some consumers are choosing sustainable brands to look good among their peers, but ultimately, the tide is turning. And ultimately, do individual motivations matter if it makes an overall positive change (for the time being, anyway)?

One of the silver linings of Covid-19 is it has been a bit of a global reset of attitudes and priorities, prompting many businesses to take a long hard look at themselves and do better.  As I am in the business of language, I want to put the spotlight on the word ‘sustainability’ and ask if it’s enough.  There is a whole industry built around ‘sustainability’ and it is a vital one. The people working in sustainability, and the businesses championing it, are doing truly exciting work. They are shaking up old models, interrogating supply chains, and finding the path to net zero, or better, net positive.

But let’s look at the word. To ‘sustain’ in this context means to maintain, to keep at a particular level.  In fact, its definition is ‘to cause or allow something to continue for a period of time’. It’s passive. Haven’t we learned that this isn’t enough? Last year the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted how not being racist isn’t enough – standing by silently is not enough, and the rallying call to society was to take action for change to happen. It is very clear the action we must take now is to put things back, to rebalance, to regenerate the biodiverse soils and seas that we have ravaged. We’ve taken so much from our planet, that operating ‘sustainably’ is not enough.

Language plays a role in shaping our views and our behaviours. So, let’s change the language within the business world from ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative’. ‘Regenerating’ is an active word, it involves doing something, it implies we need to do more. And there is huge scope for the business world to do more. A long time ago, painting a school wall as part of a CSR programme was enough to tick a few boxes for the C-suite and the Board to be happy. That changed (hooray), and people wanted to know that a company was operating responsibly: Where are your materials from? How do you pay your workers? Do you have an impact report?  Now, the dial has moved again. A US study found that consumers want companies to go well beyond sustainability and ‘do more good’ to the planet, with nearly 80% preferring ‘regenerative’ brands to ‘sustainable’ brands (study by ReGenFriends).

As we start to see the back of Covid-19 (fingers and toes crossed), let’s turn our focus to how organisations can be better, which is our driving purpose at Stand. An obvious example, but look at Patagonia, which is championing the switch to Regenerative Organic farming practices, which build healthy soil, to turn agriculture from a problem into a solution. Then there is Interface (a modular carpet manufacturer) – last year it launched the world’s first carbon-negative carpet tiles, which sequester more carbon than they create. Brands can be far more progressive and active.

The pioneers are already there, but what if this became mainstream and businesses were judged based on what it is proactively doing to fix our planet – how are they regenerating our wild spaces, rewilding our habitat, giving plant nutrients back to nature, storing carbon in soils and forests, reviving urban agriculture, or rebalancing our oceans?

Already, 81% of people say they must be able to ‘trust the brand to do what is right’ and, increasingly, the right thing means that consumers are demanding more from businesses than aiming to reach net zero within a decade or two. They will want more progressive action, now.

Catalysed through a subtle but powerful shift in language, what an incredible role businesses and brands can play in the reversal of our ‘greatest mistake’.

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