Sustainability – what’s YOUR definition?

Kim Vinet – Founder, Affirmative Sustainability

Have you ever considered that sometimes when we write, we don’t exactly define the words we use — even in our native languages? When one person uses a word, it can reflect their deep subject-matter expertise, and if the audience doesn’t understand the word to the same degree, we can create a gap in understanding.

As a certified sustainability professional, it is my job to not only understand, but also to define what I mean when I use the word “sustainability”.

The #1 definition that I’ve received in feedback is “environmentalism”. That is not the definition. That is 1/3 of the objective. Creating sustainability involves developing environmental, economic and social systems that nurture our future generations’ ability to create their own healthy environmental, economic and social systems.

To create healthy systems that last, these 3 components of sustainability must also interact in a way that serve one another. For example, the environmental effects of climate change disproportionately impact populations that are socially and economically marginalized. We cannot focus on a single aspect of our global systems without considering the impact we create on another.

My definition of sustainability describes a “thing”. It is a concept. It is a noun. Sustainability = Longevity. The colloquial usage of “sustainable” is an adjective — meaning it describes a noun. Something is sustainable if you can continue doing it without diminishing returns — but who is defining those returns?

Due to a lack of understanding of what the word “sustainable” entails, consumers have begun relying upon product certifications. Attaining certification means the product is “good enough” but by whose standards and by which definition?

Did you ever think that a single word could create so much discrepancy, which can lead to misunderstanding?

If you put the word “sustainability” into Google translate, here’s what you’ll find: Sustainability is a societal goal that broadly aims for humans to safely co-exist on planet Earth over a long time. Specific definitions of sustainability are difficult to agree on and therefore vary in the literature and over time. 

Since there is yet to be a common definition for sustainability, no wonder many people simply think only of its environmental component, forgetting the economic and social elements. Herein lies the importance of language and how to communicate to your audience to ensure your message is clearly understood.

Don’t assume that everyone will understand the true meaning or definition of your words. You may be the expert on the subject, but your audience has their own context and frame of reference that influence their understanding.