Up until now, I have to say I haven’t got too excited by the debate around the correct terminology to be used in the “Sustainability” world. However, I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t taking on a new importance.

There are a number of developments which together are leading to a greater public awareness of the environmental challenges we all face. Amongst practitioners, it has long been accepted that the clock is very much ticking but I think it’s fair to say that we’ve struggled to excite public opinion. My concern now is that if we are not careful we will inadvertently alienate certain groups through a casual “one size fits all” attitude in our terminology.

For example, from a quick search around some “Sustainability” websites today, we discover:

  • wind power is now producing nearly 11% of the UK’s energy requirements;
  • there is one group earnestly debating whether it is more environmentally friendly to plant new trees or simply not chop down old ones;
  • a news report bemoaning the fact that businesses trying to block a European Union ban on hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) appear to have started “a lobbying frenzy”; and
  • there is much debate on the merits of supply chain and life cycle analysis with particular emphasis on  water use.

Hugely different concepts lumped under the single term “Sustainability”.

The good news from my point of view is that so many people are now showing an awareness of the issues in some form or another. Even the HFC lobbying means people are actively debating the issues, even if we may not agree with some of the points of view being expressed.

However, my concern is that I’m not convinced that they appreciate that at all these issues are symptoms of the same problem – the unsustainable exploitation of finite resources. There, I’ve used the “S” word myself. I’ll bet the businessman dismisses the tree lobby and their ilk as “huggers” – literally and metaphorically – whilst that group would dismiss the HFC lobby as callous capitalists and neither side would give it any further thought.

However, as I started by saying, the clock is ticking. What we need to be doing is bringing all these people and strands of thought together, emphasizing common ground to create the groundswell needed to really change perceptions and behaviors. That public perceptions can be changed is no longer in question. After all who, for example, now doesn’t “clunk click” on every trip?

Initiatives such as this have a simple, easily understood purpose.  I’m not sure demanding “Sustainability” has that clarity, as the word itself has become debased after so many years of misuse and “green washing”.

Trouble is, with what to replace it?


Jonathan Tapp is a Senior Sustainability Consultant with Capgemini UK