What we talk about when we talk about sus­tain­abil­ity.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Draw Sustainability Reboot - By Craille Maguire Gillies

Think of all the terms that have cropped up over the past sev­eral decades or so to de­scribe the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment. Re­duce, re­use, re­cy­cle. Low foot­print. Zero foot­print. Zero waste. Go­ing green. (NB: not the same as “go­ing clear.”) Eco-friendly. Eco-chic. Eco-any­thing. In fact, the lat­ter has be­come so preva­lent that you can regis­ter a web­site with the suf­fix .eco.

Words have al­ways been a big part of the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment, and it’s no won­der why: It’s a move­ment that de­pends on com­mu­ni­cat­ing com­plex sci­ence in a way that will in­spire peo­ple to change their be­hav­iour. As the main­stream awoke to the eco­log­i­cal im­pact of their life­style choices, brands twigged to the idea that they could slap the word “green” on what they were hawk­ing and call it a day.

Along with all of this came, per­haps in­evitably, “green­wash­ing,” a term in­tro­duced by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Jay Wester­veld in the mid-1980s to de­scribe the mis­lead­ing tech­niques some brands used to mar­ket their prod­ucts as more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly than per­haps they were.

Which brings us to the term “sus­tain­abil­ity,” the lit­tle black dress of the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment, used by the gen­eral pub­lic, eco-war­riors, politi­cians and cor­po­ra­tions alike. There is sus­tain­abil­ity brand­ing and sus­tain­able growth. Com­pa­nies hire di­rec­tors of sus­tain­abil­ity, and some even re­lease sus­tain­abil­ity re­ports. Ev­ery year, Robe­coSAM, which calls it­self a “sus­tain­abil­ity in­vest­ment firm,” totes up the sus­tain­abil­ity prac­tices of a host of busi­nesses and ranks them gold, sil­ver or bronze. Of course, oth­ers have dif­fer­ent def­i­ni­tions. “Putting a warm beer in the fridge ev­ery time you take a cold one out” is what it means for one smar­tass on Ur­ban Dic­tio­nary

who was si­mul­ta­ne­ously pok­ing fun at the ubiq­uity of the word and un­der­min­ing it.

Yet the ubiq­uity of the word leads to other con­cerns, such as who has the au­thor­ity to des­ig­nate some­thing as sus­tain­able. “Cli­mate change has been trans­formed into a rhetor­i­cal con­test more akin to the spec­ta­cle of a sports match, pit­ting one side against the other with the goal of vic­tory through the cyn­i­cal use of pol­i­tics, fear, dis­trust and in­tol­er­ance,” writes An­drew J. Hoff­man in his book How Cul­ture Shapes the Cli­mate Change De­bate.

I asked Hoff­man, who teaches sus­tain­able en­ter­prise at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, about the buzz­words he has come across over the years. “You can go back to the 1960s and they talk of ‘aes­thetic pol­lu­tion’ or ‘ther­mal pol­lu­tion,’ among oth­ers,” he says. “Within the cor­po­rate sec­tor, we talked of ‘pol­lu­tion pre­ven­tion,’ ‘waste min­i­miza­tion’ and ‘to­tal qual­ity en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment.’” Where are we now? To­day he points to buzzy terms such as “cir­cu­lar econ­omy,” “shar­ing econ­omy,” “con­scious cap­i­tal­ism” and “sus­tain­able con­sump­tion.”

“Th­ese kinds of terms cre­ate fod­der for op­po­si­tion,” he says. “Green [what­ever] is be­com­ing code for a lib­eral agenda. All of this is a rhetor­i­cal war that dis­tracts from the real is­sues.” But sus­tain­abil­ity, in the way it is cur­rently used, isn’t go­ing any­where, he ad­mits.

So what do we talk about when we talk about sus­tain­abil­ity? The term cropped up in its cur­rent con­text in the early 1970s as part of a study about the earth’s “car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity,” ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect and de­sign-thinker Lance Hosey in an ar­ti­cle for Huff­in­g­ton Post. It took hold in 1987, when a United Na­tions-funded study of­fered up this def­i­ni­tion: “Hu­man­ity has the abil­ity to make de­vel­op­ment sus­tain­able to en­sure that it meets the needs of the present with­out com­pro­mis­ing the abil­ity of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to meet their own needs.” In other words, if we suc­ceed at sus­tain­abil­ity, our chil­dren’s chil­dren’s chil­dren will live in a world as rich—so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally and en­vi­ron­men­tally—as the one we have now. The term only be­came zeit­geisty in the 2000s, af­ter much more fad­dish ne­ol­o­gisms (re­mem­ber free­gans and lo­ca­vores?) be­gan to fade away. Hosey was cu­ri­ous about when the word sus­tain­abil­ity en­tered the main­stream lex­i­con, and, nat­u­rally, he noo­dled around on the In­ter­net, dis­cov­er­ing that it got more hits on Google than “Grand Canyon” or “Gandhi.” The point is that the term it­self was be­com­ing as pop­u­lar as the ac­tual prac­tice of, well, liv­ing more sus­tain­ably.

Yet un­like “free­gan” and “lo­ca­vore,” the LBD of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism is still a use­ful word. As Hoff­man notes: “Sus­tain­abil­ity is a broader term than cli­mate change and fo­cuses more on the so­lu­tion than the prob­lem.” The chal­lenge is to reach peo­ple—and not only com­mit­ted en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists—with­out alien­at­ing or, worse, bor­ing them. Lan­guage, which we saw with green­wash­ing—and as Don­ald Trump’s Twit­ter ac­tiv­ity has demon­strated—can be weaponized. And it is dif­fi­cult to even write about all of this with­out us­ing the very catch­phrases that have be­come so cliché. “Our ma­jor obli­ga­tion,” Amer­i­can broad­caster Ed­ward R. Mur­row once said, “is not to mis­take slo­gans for so­lu­tions.”

This would res­onate with Joe Wade, who is the founder of Don’t Panic, a Lon­don and New York ad­ver­tis­ing agency that cre­ates pur­pose-driven cam­paigns for char­i­ties such as Save the Chil­dren and Green­peace, along with brands such as Google. I ask him how the lan­guage around sus­tain­abil­ity has changed. He freely ad­mits that he de­ploys a buzz­word to de­scribe Don’t Panic’s work: pur­pose. “Pur­pose is cur­rently what all brands are look­ing to project to the pub­lic,” he says.

Wade sug­gests reg­u­lat­ing the word so that some­thing de­scribed as sus­tain­able has the same kind of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion given to, say, or­ganic prod­ucts. But also at is­sue is what such a broad term ac­tu­ally means. While Canada and al­most 200 other coun­tries have adopted the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment, the word it­self can be con­strued in many ways. The terms of the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment keep chang­ing, lead­ing to what au­thor and ac­tivist Dou­glas Gayeton called “term fa­tigue”: “[Peo­ple] have cli­mate fa­tigue be­cause of terms like ‘car­bon debt’: They didn’t re­ally get it the first time, and they didn’t know what it meant the 20th time, so they just sort of tuned out,” he said in a 2014 in­ter­view about his project The Lex­i­con of Sus­tain­abil­ity.

What­ever the chal­lenges, Wade is not will­ing to do away with the lan­guage of sus­tain­abil­ity. “We need cor­po­ra­tions to want to mod­ify their be­hav­iour to earn the right to use the word sus­tain­abil­ity.”

Even then, the chal­lenge, Wade says, is not to be­come com­pla­cent. “Some peo­ple are go­ing to think they are sav­ing the rain­forests with their choice of cof­fee, mean­ing they think their re­spon­si­bil­ity is over and no longer en­gage with a char­ity who may be do­ing some proper work.” Com­mu­ni­cat­ing the pur­pose be­hind the rhetoric will give th­ese words we’ve been talk­ing about true stick­i­ness.

“Sus­tain­abil­ity isn’t a trend; it’s an ethic. It can never be­come un­fash­ion­able, even if its lan­guage does,” averred Hosey. Or, as Wade told me, “more sub­stan­tial and sus­tained ac­tion is re­quired, what­ever you call it!”

“Sus­tain­abil­ity isn’t a trend; it’s an ethic. It can never be­come un­fash­ion­able, even if its lan­guage does.”

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