Let’s be clear: Simplifying sustainability

Let’s be clear: Simplifying sustainability

To reach more businesses with the benefits that sustainability has to offer, it’s time that we in the field simplify and demystify our message.

“We’re doing the right thing.” Businesses are increasingly challenged to communicate this to customers. More often than not, companies must bear the expense of a new marketing campaign or hire an outside firm for support. Another common practice is cloaking the idea of doing good in complex verbiage known as “sustainability speak.” Problem is, as long as people don’t understand the concept underlying the terminology, sustainability will continue to sound like an unnecessary expense.

In its essence, sustainability is much simpler to understand than the jargon would suggest. When approached holistically and woven into the DNA of a company, sustainability even saves money.  The issue is how we’re communicating it.

There was a time when “The Golden Rule” prevailed in our culture. Folks were more or less aligned around a common understanding of what “doing good” meant. There wasn’t a need to document efforts to be ethical in print and marketing materials, and they didn’t need complicated policies to guide them. (Of course, we could argue all of these points industry by industry, but stick with me as I make my point.)

Times have changed, and so has business. We now operate in a global marketplace. Some harmful practices that are now reformed or regulated in the US are not protected in other places where our goods are now manufactured. Such an expansive shift calls for us to also expand our definitions, starting with what it means to “do the right thing,” especially in a business context.

Sustainability has been defined a number of ways, but at its essence, it’s still about The Golden Rule. Expanding on this concept for our global society, we might say it like this: Treat your global neighbor as yourself. While that speaks to the social component of sustainability, there is also the environmental aspect. Environmental sustainability refers to protecting natural resources – that is, our natural capital – as well as the longevity of our businesses, which rely on natural capital as inputs. In other words, businesses need both natural and human resource (the environmental and the social ) to endure financially.

In the above explanation of sustainability, we can see the source of so much confusion. In our culture, the social and environmental components are often seen as mutually exclusive – and certainly distinct from ‘profits’ and ‘capitalism.’ This failure to see the interconnectedness of these concepts is a barrier to understanding. Until more people can see how one affects the other, communicating sustainability will prove difficult.

That’s where action comes in – the global sustainability movement becomes more tangible when we look at real-world examples. Fortunately, there are thousands of good examples of sustainability in action. From big industries to small businesses, enterprises in both the public and private sectors are showing us by example what it means to be sustainable. One of them is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, an outdoor clothing retailer that has been pursuing sustainability in every way since launching in 1988.

Some specific examples of initiatives from Patagonia include the Common Threads Partnership, in which Patagonia encourages their customers to purchase quality long-lasting gear over quantity, to repair the gear they have, to find another use for gear they no longer want, and if that’s not possible, to send it back to Patagonia to be recycled. Common Thread’s message of “reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle” has resulted in over 26,000 pieces of clothing being repaired, 41,000+ pieces finding new homes, and nearly 57 tons of worn-out pieces of clothing being recycled to date.

Patagonia has also been innovative and intentional about improving their social and environmental impact through its supply chain as well. The Footprint Chronicles: Our Supply Chain details Patagonia’s way of holding themselves accountable and encouraging others in ethical and sustainable business practices through supply chain transparency.

Patagonia is just one of the many socially and environmentally-conscious enterprises pursuing sustainability and succeeding at it. Let’s continue the work of clarifying sustainability by showing companies how feasible it is. As more companies adopt the practice, society can enjoy more of its benefits.

Communication image via dc-associates.com

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