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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.