Sustainability – A Term Still Suffering From Misunderstanding

It’s easy sometimes, I think, for we sustainability professionals to believe that the good majority of people in broader business and society have an understanding of sustainability, what it is and all that it encompasses.

The concept, or the word at least, is ubiquitous these days. And those of us that work within the sphere of sustainability, of course, are immersed in it pretty much day in, day out. As a result of this immersion we can suffer, of sorts, from not seeing the woods from the trees around sustainability. It’s helpful, from time to time, to take a step back and think about and understand others view points and understandings, particularly in a business context.

From my own recent experiences it seems that there still is a common misconception out there that sustainability is equal to one or a combination of saving energy, solar panels/ wind turbines, giving money to charity, saving trees, saving one of innumerable various flora or fauna species or making sure a business is profitable.

And faced with this it’s easy to throw ones hands up and say “bloody hell, really?! We’re still here?!” But that’s not the answer. It’s our role as sustainability professionals to understand what this is telling us.

It’s telling us that the concept suffers not in the main from being a complex and interweaved topic, but primarily suffers, most likely, from a poor communication of that complexity into simple, well-understood terms. And particularly so in a business sense.

So how do we overcome this?

There’s the rub! There’s no one way to do this (or I suggest we’d probably be in a position of greater common understanding), and neither necessarily should there be.

My thinking is that it’s all about context and the audience specifically. Yes, there may be some broad-ranging, commonly understood definitions of sustainability in certain circles. However, this doesn’t necessarily help, in the first instance, in capturing the hearts and minds of those that are unsure what it all means, carry around a limited definition or even carry misconceptions.


My advice is to get contextual. Understand the business /organisation you’re in and the industry you’re in and make what you’re talking about, in terms of key sustainability elements, relevant to your organisation. Make it relevant to the people that you’re talking to and find the language that they respond to also. Seek to understand their key drivers, both professionally and personally. And keep discussions and ‘messages’ around sustainability engaging, relevant, clear, simple to follow, short and to the point.


This is not about watering things down. This is about capturing hearts and minds in the first instance, in a genuine way, to then begin broadening the conversation out in due course.


Communications should also be somewhat of an ongoing and continuous conversation too. Just as sustainability is an ongoing journey in terms of learning, development, new ideas and improvement, so our conversations about sustainability, what it means to be sustainable and what the priorities are in that respect must also continue on.


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