Sustainability: The Need for a Common Language

Think of the state of the sustainability agenda and it’s hard not be reminded of one of the defining stories in western literature, that of the Tower of Babel—found early in the book of Genesis, which opens the Christian Bible. As many will recall, the narrative runs like this: after the Flood, which the Bible tells us swept the known world and drowned most people, a united mankind came together, speaking one language, to build a massive tower with its “top in the heavens”.

But that’s where things became a little sticky. God, spotting what they were up to, came down to inspect the works. Concerned that if they were left to complete the Tower there would be no stopping the builders’ ambitions, God decided to confound them—by mixing up their languages and scattering them across the Earth.

A Multiplicity of Terms

At its best, language can be a great unifier, but it can also create divisions and spur deep misunderstandings. We are not there quite yet, but my sense is that the fragmentation of languages across the sustainability agenda is already causing problems, and these are likely to get worse.

The events of 2012 have only fuelled my concern. Recall the UN Rio+20 summit in June, where one of the key targets was meant to be “Green Growth” to spur the development of the “Green Economy”—but where some Asian countries, particularly China, expressed concern about the way such concepts are currently defined.

Towards Zero Impact Growth, a new study by our colleagues at Deloitte Innovation in The Netherlands suggests that the proliferation of languages across the corporate responsibility, accountability and sustainability agendas is, if anything, accelerating.

Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the evolution of language—indeed evolving fields of science and technology always spur the evolution of new (and often competing) concepts and terms. We also see the emergence of competing platforms, as in the early days of information technology, when rivals like Microsoft and Apple went head-to-head in terms of their different versions of the future, for example whether open or closed architectures would prevail.

Differing Sustainability Platforms

The same is now happening in the sustainability space as it becomes more commercial, with the clues including the growing array of terms now in use—a variety of language which many business people just getting involved say they find one of the hardest things to get their brains around.

Just as different types of computers found it impossible to communicate and share data in the early days of the IT revolution, so we may now be running the risk of evolving different sustainability platforms that find it hard to communicate. How, for example, should we best connect exciting fields such as the triple bottom line, cradle-to-cradle design, base-of-the-pyramid business models, the circular economy, behavioral economics, bio-mimicry or zero-based targets?

Each of these concepts—and many others—are used by different communities, some overlapping, others not. In many cases, the concepts and terms are used as a badge of entry, linking to set views on related issues.

Cradle-to-Cradle? Zero-based Targets?

So, for example, if you subscribe to the cradle-to-cradle theory of design, your aim will be to get tothe point where all the materials used in a supply chain or an economy are completely biodegradable, or are captured by recovery and recycling systems that ensure an almost completely circular economy.

Zero-based targets may be seen as a distraction, even when the very nature of cradle-to-cradle design implies driving the use of all toxics to zero.

In some cases, however, it may make sense to keep potentially toxic materials in the system, as long as they are not handled or discharged in ways that potentially cause problems. That is the approach that companies like Adidas, Nike and Puma are now taking with their innovative roadmap towards zero discharges of hazardous chemicals in their supply chains in China.

Zero Impact Growth & Best Practices

To try and avoid confusion, Deloitte Innovation lists some of the things that “Zero Impact Growth” is not. It does not, for example, mean ‘Zero Growth’ or zero targets for everything.

Instead, it aims to help set the boundaries for sustainable capitalism. The Deloitte report quotes World War II American general Omar Bradley: “It is time we steered by the stars, not by the light of each passing ship.” The point being that we need a North Star definition of what we are trying to achieve if we are to avoid descending into confusion and inaction.

To get a better grip on where leading corporations are on all of this, Deloitte surveyed companies that are members of the UN Global Compact, the Caring for Climate Program or the CEO Water Mandate.  Using only publicly available information, the analysts investigated 65 companies, representing 10 core industries and 25 sectors. The top scorer overall was Unilever, because of their ambitious targets embedded in its Sustainable Living Plan.

In terms of best practice, there were various headings. Under ‘Collaborative Actions,’ the spotlight fell on the six companies driving the ZDHC Roadmap project: Adidas Group, C&A, H&M, Li-Ning, Nike and Puma. And Puma was also spotlighted for best practice under the heading ‘Internalization of externalities,’ for its Environmental Profit & Loss work.

As far as key barriers to further progress are concerned, the analysts point to one strongly reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Their research, they say, “revealed a lack of consistent definitions and descriptions that companies use to explain their sustainability efforts.”  This gets in the way of both accurate analysis and, they suspect, effective implementation of the relevant corporate strategies.

Clearly there is much work still to do here, but any attempts to converge the sustainability languages used will only be successful if they also help converge scattered expert communities and build real critical mass for transformational change.

Originally published on CSRwire
John Elkington
is Executive Chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel.

3 Responses

  1. Faye Sinnott

    If anyone has any difficulty finding the page, go through the ISSP website ( and click on “News & Initiatives” on the left-hand side.  One should see the Lexicon Project on the drop-down menu and be able to access.

    There are two levels of challenge:  one, enabling sustainability experts to effectively communicate with one another across disciplines and industries, which may include context-based clarifications/guidance; and

    secondly, work on effective communications with John Q. Public.  Too many times “sustainability” is seen as privation, rather than quality richness via alternative routes.

  2. Margarida Monteiro de Barros

    This post
    raised a debate in me: Common language or a new Language?

    Should the
    language be common (standardised) for a better understanding of targets and
    objectives, or should be coupled with behaviour and openness to comprehend
    others for a new Language to evolve embracing the diversity of terms?

    My view of Language
    was shaken a few years ago by, manly, Noam Chomsky:

    The board
    sense of Language that rocked my world relates with factors such as:  “Experience” – the ability associated with the
    use of language; and “Efficiency Computation” – the capacity to construct linkages.
    (I am sorry to all experts if I simplify rather than synthesise the view of

    can be a mechanism of intervention to stimulate the imagination and change.

    From where
    I stand, sustainability relates to different ways of embracing values and
    create added-value beyond (but inclusive) financial achievements. If it
    embraces more than the traditional view of value (financial), shouldn’t a new Language be
    used to instigate this new view?

    The ecology
    of Language, where diversity is key, can potentially create new futures (because
    can instigate new linkages = new solutions), which current language associated
    to current mass-mindset (e.g. business-as-usual) can be barricading. Yet,
    diversity should not be an obstacle for understanding, but a tool to amplify

    The journey
    of trying to understand others, constructs a new understanding (like suggested
    by the late theoretical physicist David Bohm in the matter of Dialogues).

    It seems to me that the view of “Time” should change, in which patience (long term)
    is key to comprehend others. I find, maybe wrongly, that “standardisations” of
    terms can fell into the fast adoption (mass) of the same old terms used in
    business-as-usual with a little twist, which are terms related with, as
    Ehrenfeld well explains, reducing unsustainability (short termism).

    standardisation, in my view, should occur in our ability to apprehend other’s
    ideas and contexts (standardise availability); this is the standardisation of
    behaviour that has the capacity to change businesses and should be transversal
    to business practice e.g. openness to comprehension and cooperation. This is,
    for me, the structure underneath Language: the behaviour. Different behaviours
    create a different Language and therefore different futures.

    I know, it
    seems far from being practical BUT: if we do focus on the structure of Language
    (in which changing behaviours are key) rather than in the terms used (output of
    language), greater results can be achieved, as our perception of value, and
    value-added, as well as scale and cooperation rapidly change if the structure
    that creates them changes. Changing behaviour (in a broader sense) towards
    sustainability can generate new and existing results, including a (new) common
    Language. The opposite is also something to be aware of: a new Language can trigger different behaviours.

     I would like to underline that I don’t
    consider “standardisation of terms” oppose to “diversity of terms”, I found
    them complementary.  I dare to say that we
    are in the middle of the creation-process of a new Language, and Time is
    needed. Diversity is part of it, and communalities too.

    Under these
    ideas the assumption can be point out as: if our mindset changes (which is the
    structure underneath Language- its mechanism and capacity to construct linkages) our
    Language changes and the terms used too = communality of language (can be



    Should the
    language be common (standardised) for a better understanding of targets and
    objectives, or should be coupled (add) with behaviour and openness to comprehend
    others for a new Language to evolve embracing the diversity of terms?


    language or (learning to give space to) a new Language?