Common Language for Sustainability

Mike Barry, director of sustainability at Marks and Spencer said it best at the 2014 Skoll World Forum, “as soon as you start to challenge language its like cussing in Church.” This is a clever, humorous, true and convenient point. The debate about the choice of words that people use to discuss the meaning of sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and so forth matters however it has been exhausted and we’ve been left without clarity and consensus. For me the baseline is that sustainability is the destination. It refers to living within limits, understanding the interconnections among economy, society, and environment and the impact and consequence of decisions on each part of the ecosystem and thirdly, the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.

Cover of the Economist magazine, Aug. 30-Sept. 14, 2014
Cover of the Economist magazine, Aug. 30-Sept. 14, 2014

This week’s Schumpeter column in the Economist magazine make a serious point about a deficient common language. Without a definition there is “no basis for coherent policy.” Policy innovation is arguably as important as product, service and business model innovation to help rectify or overcome the social problems at the heart of society – from water access to homelessness, maternal health or access to education and training.


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