Why do people who work in sustainability hate 'sustainability'?

There is a growing consensus that the word 'sustainability' is becoming a hindrance for the green economy, but what should it be replaced with?

21 Nov 2012, 14:38

Is it possible to love your job and hate your job title? I suppose it must be, because that appears to be the lot of many sustainability executives.

For years, complaints about the word 'sustainability' have been a perennial feature of green business conferences the world over. There is a general agreement that while the goals of sustainability are both admirable and fulfilling, the word itself is just too… wet.

The responses to our recently launched In the Green Room interviews are informative. Asked to tell us their favourite or worst bit of green jargon, senior executives repeatedly opted for the dreaded 'sustainability'. "The word 'sustainability' is a problem, because everyone interprets it differently and we need to find ways of not talking about it," complained WRAP's Liz Goodwin. "Sustainability is way overused," warned Oracle Utilities' senior vice president Rodger Smith. "I'm beginning to hate the word 'sustainability'," admitted Gail Klintworth, chief sustainability officer at Unilever.

Does this job title-induced self-loathing matter? It must do. Those who bear the mantle are those most aware of the fact that 'sustainability' is too vague, too diffuse, too loaded with soft-focus environmentalist cliches to really cut through at a corporate level. Sustainability executives are now in charge of large and growing budgets and, in the case of the likes of Unilever, Sainsbury's, and IKEA, responsible for massive strategic transformation programmes. And yet they are saddled by a job title and a nomenclature that downplays their importance and influence.

The problem is that while the "sustainability is a problem" conversation is a perennial feature of any meeting of sustainability executives, the debate quickly falters when someone suggests a new term.

Despite its myriad flaws there is a strong case for keeping hold of the sustainability handle, not least because it has taken decades for the sustainability function to carve out an influential role and identity in many organisations and, as such, changing the name risks both confusing people and diluting the voice of an increasingly emboldened sustainability sector. Perhaps sustainability executives would be better served by focusing on expanding their influence still further and underlining their importance by laying claim to the increasingly popular title of 'chief sustainability officer' or CSO.

However, a chief sustainability officer will by definition still be responsible for delivering something that many of their fellow executives do not fully understand. They will still have to fight against crude stereotyping that aligns their corporate goals with little more than treehugging and greenwash. They will still have to repeatedly explain that sustainability is not just about incremental energy-efficiency projects or offsetting investments, but a fundamental transformation of business operations.

If for no other reason than that many people working in sustainability hate it (the word, not the job), it is time to have a serious conversation about changing it. After all, IT directors have successfully rebranded themselves as chief innovation or technology officers, crowbarring a place on the board in the process. Why can't sustainability officers do the same?

It is not like there aren't plenty of more resonant words to choose from to define the sustainability executive's role. Sustainability is ultimately about corporate resilience and optimisation in the broadest sense, both of which are much stronger words than sustainability. Or, if you prefer something less defensive, the best sustainability programmes are largely focused on innovation and transformation, both of which are far more compelling goals than simply sustaining oneself. Personally, I'd opt for a combination of the two different aspects of sustainability and have an Innovation and Resilience or IR department.

It is time to seriously consider if a simple shift in the terminology used by green executives could significantly strengthen their hand within the organisations that they are tasked with making more sustainable. After all, no one should have to hate their own job title.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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