What does ‘sustainable’ mean to you?


To sustainability professionals, the word “sustainable” means more than just environmentally friendly – but that’s not the case for consumers, according to a new study. How can we fix this?

We use it openly and freely, and it’s not really a consumer word,” said Carol Fitzgerald, CEO of online research company BuzzBack, at a Rainforest Alliance event in New York City on Thursday.

She was presenting new research from a not-yet-completed study on perceptions about sustainability. Only the US portion of the study, which will ultimately also include research from the UK, India, China and Brazil, has been finished.

One surprise is how few US respondents said they hear the word sustainability regularly: only 16% said they see it “very often”, with 56% reportedly seeing it “occasionally”, according to Fitzgerald.

And in several different activities meant to help researchers understand consumers’ view of sustainability, US respondents chose environmental words such as “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, “organic,” “green”, “recycle” and “renewable” as most similar to “sustainability”, she said.

Meanwhile, words such as “ethical,” “trust”, “trustworthy”, “collaboration”, “community” and “transparency” ranked low in their perceived relationship to sustainability, she said.

Different generations also had different definitions. “Among baby boomers, there’s some confusion about what it is,” Fitzgerald said. Baby boomers were more likely to choose words such as “health” and “life”, but selected fewer words that reflect the idea of preserving for the future than Gen X or Gen Y respondents.

The results signal the need to build more awareness about non-environmental aspects of sustainability, Fitzgerald said: “The words they’re using are ‘natural’, ‘organic’. I think we all feel sustainability is more than that. So we need to develop a new lexicon.”

The different consumer and industry definitions raise the question: Who’s right? Given that definitions are derived from words’ use, what does it mean that the general public relegates sustainability to the environmental realm while professionals, who use the word more often, think it means more? And are sustainability pros just talking to themselves?

BuzzBack isn’t the first to question the wisdom of using words – including the “S” word – that remain more like jargon than everyday language.

But is it really time to give up on the word “sustainability” all together? The industry will need to decide whether to work to change the definition of “sustainability” or eliminate its use – or a bit of both, said KoAnn Skrzyniarz, CEO of sustainable-business community Sustainable Brands. While challenges remain, such as the word’s currently narrow definition, she said, “the sustainability word is coming into the common vernacular in some way”.

What do you think? How can we – executives, employees, investors, activists, policymakers, stakeholders and consumers – help to broaden the discussion beyond the environment (without leaving environmental issues out)?

Is it a matter of bringing a deeper vocabulary, beyond just a few buzzwords, into mainstream usage? Is more marketing and outreach needed to show that these broader topics are a key part of sustainability? Or should we give up the word “sustainable” as a lost cause, instead favoring words like “ethical”, “responsible” and “conscious”?