The language of sustainability

Sustainable practices offer businesses and the planet many benefits. Claire Benson, Founder and Co-Director of SDG Changemakers, explores the importance of the language of sustainability in convincing both businesses and consumers to take action.


Climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste are three interlinked emergencies driven by human activities, as are inequality, malnutrition and child labour.


Globally, national net zero targets in domestic legislation or policy documents have surged — from 10% of total greenhouse gas coverage in December 2020 to 65% in June 2022.


Yet the words sustainable and sustainability have been put onto the naughty step. Influencers talk about the need to move on from sustainability and embrace regeneration. The core strand of their argument is that sustainability is not enough, that it is just about “doing less harm”.


Other commentators say the issue lies in the fact that, for years, companies have been doing basic Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and now Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), all whilst increasing their impact on the planet and people. Some criticism asserts that these are greenwashing ploys, that have lost direction and meaning.


However, the same could be said for new terms such as thrivability and regeneration. Without the context and relevant knowledge to support these concepts, and as companies rush to make claims they cannot back up, we risk diluting and devaluing these too.


Sustainability should be seen as a movement and a journey.


Sustainability has been growing as a movement for around three decades, steering us to be more equitable and have a safer future.


The 1987 Brundtland, Our Common Future Report, was the first comprehensive look at the challenge of sustainable development. It called for a disruption of the current economic model to one that meets the needs of present generations without adversely affecting future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.


If sustainability is viewed as the overarching concept that encompasses other terms like ESG policy, nature-based solutions and biomimicry, it should help businesses understand that on one end of the spectrum, harm minimisation and efficiency gains can be made by incorporating sustainable practices.


As a movement, sustainability can be seen as the process of shifting social values and reorienting away from exploitation toward a regenerative society. Exploitation can be in the form of raw materials, labour, or inequalities in communities and markets such as the food value chain.


Applying a common language and process.


To shift and reorientate, business leaders must redesign processes, systems, services, products, lifestyles and organisational mindsets. This approach is embedded in sustainable development, of which we now have the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals).


The SDGs can be described as the global to-do list, created to deliver a future where the planet's most significant environmental, social and economic challenges have either been eradicated or are being addressed at scale, such as combatting food waste and curbing the overconsumption of natural resources.


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