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It’s time to ban the empty word ‘sustainability’

While the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that became all the rage some time ago initially had worthwhile aims, it is now more commonly used by corporations to out-worthy their competitors…

Some cardboard trees made by Hugo Boss and painted by children, because: sustainability! Geoff Caddick/PA

While the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that became all the rage some time ago initially had worthwhile aims, it is now more commonly used by corporations to out-worthy their competitors.

Originally CSR encouraged corporations to consider the impact of their business on society, which provides their consumers and clients, their staff, and - certainly in the case of bankers - pays for their mistakes. So when was Corporate Social Responsibility replaced with Corporate Sustainability Rhetoric?

As with many aspects of business, the innovators and early adopters have a clear understanding of what they are doing and why. However, by the time that new practice features in business handbooks, it has become a fad that must be followed in order to maintain market share. At this point all that is desired is the easiest route to demonstrate compliance.

Thus CSR has gone the way of Quality Assurance (QA). Once CSR and QA were business improvement activities. A good CSR policy connected a business to the community that supported it. A well written QA system helped the business operations. Both have been reduced to tick-box auditing with the aim of allowing businesses to demonstrate that they are no worse than their competitors.

Why is a priest blessing some sheep? Because of sustainability! Ian Nicholson/PA

Perhaps political leaders are reading these same handbooks - after all, doesn’t the private sector have all the answers? This may explain why we see rhetoric replacing action on sustainable development in all spheres of life, including politics and national leadership. This leads to meaningless comparisons such as the recent report by “sustainability investment firm” Robeco that ranks countries for their “sustainability”.

I quote from the introduction:

In an effort to continuously integrate sustainability considerations into a growing range of asset classes and prompted by the onset of the financial crisis, Robeco and RobecoSAM have been working together to develop a comprehensive and systematic framework for determining country sustainability rankings. This framework is designed to complement traditional rating agencies and traditional financial analysis of a country.

We have reached the point of “Sustainability Accounting”. Rather than recognising that all human activity has impacts and taking responsibility for them, sustainability accounting uses a limited set of performance indicators which can obscure the real issues. Competing organisations in any sphere, from retail stores to governments, vie to be more sustainable than each other. We see social media discussions about “sustainable leadership” or how to “leverage sustainability” in business. All of which seems to me to be utter baloney. Meanwhile a lucrative new industry has grown up around “sustainability consultancy” - whatever that means.

Snorklers pose as if buying fish from a 50s pin-up, this is surely because: sustainability! Carl Court/PA

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as “the property of being sustainable”. It also defines “sustainable” as “to be capable of enduring”, which should be enough for us all to want to be sustainable - consider the alternative: “unsustainable”. If any activity is not sustainable, from a single business to an entire economy, it will cease. By definition. A leader who fails to lead a business or country sustainably will bring about its demise. This is not a question of degree. There is no “more sustainable” or “less sustainable”. The only variable is how long the organisation or activity can survive.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines the term “environmental sustainability” as “the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”. So environmental sustainability is a property of a system or rate of activity, such as constructing buildings or consuming fuel. This makes it clear that sustainability is inherent to the system or activity as it surely cannot be added afterwards through political or corporate leadership.

The Bruntland Commission muddied the water further by providing a definition of “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.“ The Brundtland Report went on to define "needs” specifically in terms of prioritising the essential needs of the world’s poor. However, this subtle distinction has been long forgotten by those who consider that economic growth is a prerequisite. So development has become synonymous with continual economic growth and sustainability accounting is used to convince us that it can be achieved benignly, in the face of all the evidence.

Prince Charles holding a cut-out of Wales - undoubtedly a case of: sustainability! Ben Birchall/PA

A hero of mine, Professor Sir Ted Happold, once said that an engineer is someone who can do for a penny what any fool could do for a pound. Engineering ingenuity delivers financial, resource and fuel efficiencies, every day as a matter of routine. This gives us some hope. In order to continue as we would like as a developed society we need to do it with less. Less money, less resources and less fuel. If we reduce our consumption enough we might be capable of enduring on this planet for a reasonable length of time.

The word “sustainability” should be banned from technical and political discourse. It has become so corrupted as to not only be meaningless, but to actually obscure the real issues that must be dealt with. To begin with, we must attest that all human activity has impacts, and these may go far beyond the present sustainability indicators. Nevertheless, we need to take responsibility for all of them and strive to minimise or mitigate them.

We need to start taking responsibility for our resource and energy consumption, for social development, for the health of our economy and to protect our vital biosphere. We cannot continue to cherry-pick just those issues that allow us to demonstrate our worthiness in limited spheres. These responsibilities extend across the generations, and we cannot ignore our responsibilities simply because we will not be around to be held accountable by future generations.

If our successors are still able to talk about these issues in 2100 then surely we will have sustained - by definition.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. George Valakirev

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Sustainability is word that has come into fashion in the last ten years. I doubt many of those that use it could explain what it means. It also has a different meaning for each context that it is in mode. It seems to have found its way into texts in many disciplines where you would struggle find it in 20th century texts. It has often been employed in a way that is intended to produce conformity to some particular way of thinking in the absence of any rational or scientific basis.

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    1. Doug King

      Visiting Professor of Building Physics at University of Bath

      In reply to George Valakirev

      George
      Agreed. Sustainability has become pseudo scientific jargon despite there being no quantities by which you can measure it. That's great for corporations, countries and consultants as you can choose to measure whatever shows you up in a good light. It is now used simply to get one over on your competitors, whoever they are.

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  2. John Doyle

    architect

    What an excellent article!
    Another buzz word becomes meaningless.
    Unfortunately, and illustratively, Ted Happold's aphorism no longer applies.
    Lawyers have seen to that and government agencies are complicit.
    So now it takes more than a pound to do a pound's work! No such thing as a penny any more!

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    1. Doug King

      Visiting Professor of Building Physics at University of Bath

      In reply to John Doyle

      Jim
      I agree with you - but not entirely. Professionals can still deliver value, but the general loss of trust in professionalism means that clients and the public sector in particular now layer masses of project management and auditing on top of what should have been a simple job. My blog on Professionalism explains: http://www.dougking.co.uk/new-professionalism/

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    2. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Doug King

      Sure Doug,
      I was mainly reacting due to my own experience which is in domestic architecture. Here engineers are forced into designing oversized elements in all parts of the building.
      Possibly in really big and hard to comprehend projects the engineers are left alone to do their work.
      It reminds me of one of Parkinson's laws where the scrutiny of a project is in inverse ratio to its importance. He illustrated that by a board taking 2 minutes to approve a nuclear power plant, but an hour gets spent on the tea lady's allowance.

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    3. Doug King

      Visiting Professor of Building Physics at University of Bath

      In reply to John Doyle

      John (sorry about the earlier misspell - fat fingers and autocorrect!)

      Having worked on both domestic and big, hard to comprehend projects I feel that I can comment with some authority.

      On domestic projects the value of the works is rarely enough to justify the fee for full engineering design. Thus the engineering design tends to be based on the last project + 20% to ensure that it won't fall short and disappoint the customer.

      On big and hard to comprehend projects the client does not trust the design team and employs projects managers to audit their work under the threat of litigation. Therefore the engineering design tends to be based on calculated requirement + 20% in order to avoid any chance of ending up in court.

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  3. mike swain

    journalist at Freelance

    Excellent article. Sustainability is an ugly word and has been hi-jacked to the point of meaninglessness.
    It has become a catch-all word to describe vague aspirations.
    The clearer the language, the clearer the thinking

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    1. Doug King

      Visiting Professor of Building Physics at University of Bath

      In reply to mike swain

      Mike

      How can we use our reach to convince business leaders and politicians to base policy on evidence and science and not on meaningless rhetoric?

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    2. mike swain

      journalist at Freelance

      In reply to Doug King

      Sorry Doug I missed this.

      At the risk of sounding pat I would say by making the science as robust as it can be and, for journalists, to present it it in the most clear, simple and honest way possible.

      It is like the smoking debate - eventually the evidence could not be denied.

      But I also think the size of the problem and the size of the challenge needs to be recognised by those who are asking business leaders and politicians to make fundamental changes. It can't all be solved at one world conference.

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  4. Juergen Siemer

    Senior Analyst

    As a co-author of the Robeco-study, I would like to make a few comments:
    1. Yes, the term sustainability has probably been used too much for various marketing purposes.
    2. As you correctly quote, the sustainability analysis of countries in our study complements the traditional financial analysis. Our sustainability analysis is, I would say, a deeper fundamental analysis of the economic, governmental, social and environmental data of countries. This fundamental analysis is complementary to the…

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    1. Doug King

      Visiting Professor of Building Physics at University of Bath

      In reply to Juergen Siemer

      Juergen

      Thank you so much for contributing. I was trying to cover a lot of ground in a short article. My comments were directed at a whole industry sector that often cherry picks certain aspects of sustainable development to highlight and glosses over others.

      I thought that your work was interesting. However, I wonder how much of the data you base it on is self-reported by countries and corporations who are subject to exactly the sustainability accounting and issue cherry picking that I was…

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    2. Juergen Siemer

      Senior Analyst

      In reply to Doug King

      Doug

      There are more than 250 data series in the model, most come from international organizations like the WorldBank, the UN or from semi-private organizations like the WEF here in Switzerland. Of course, a lot of data are originally provided by the statistical offices of the countries.

      We have given the highest weight in our model to what we summarize under "governance", as the analysis has shown to us that the decicive factor is the willigness and capability of governments to react to challenges…

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  5. Alasdair Taylor

    logged in via Twitter

    Interesting take on sustainability. No doubt it is an over-used and often insincerely used buzzword! From my field, chemistry, there has been a long movement known as "green chemistry" which seeks to replace existing chemical processes with environmentally more benign methods. In recent years, its been noticeable that sustainability has also crept more and more into the green chemistry lexicon as well. I feel that in other contexts, "sustainability" has replaced "green" entirely.

    I'm not sure I wholeheartedly agree with the your line that we will only survive on "Less money, less resources and less fuel." Some resources will dwindle, we quickly need to be able to recycle many but in the long term we will (have to) replace them. If we do the latter successfully, we may end up with more resources than we have now. Big if, however.

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  6. Aaron

    logged in via Twitter

    I find that the idea of achieving sustainability is often confused with the idea of sustaining the satus quo for as long as possible.

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    1. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Aaron

      Yes, that's like conservation (of nature) is sometimes confused with being politically conservative.

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  7. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    What a brilliant article, people should know that these "Sustainability" initiatives are an exercise in perception management and that many companies do not have a public persona and do not need to care what the public think of them.

    Naming and Shaming individual companies will get you no where, regulations against certain actions, practice's will get you somewhere and enforcement of these regulations will get you further

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    1. Doug King

      Visiting Professor of Building Physics at University of Bath

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Thanks Michael
      I agree that naming and shaming will just get people's backs up. But we do have to demonstrate the fallacy of their positions in order to get them to move to one more tenable.

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