Words That Change

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That word sustainability

I have the good fortune to work with a number of clients engaged in social and sustainable business. These progressive types have a constant desire to reimagine and reinvent the edge of what is known and what is possible. There is a consistent will to find the edge of our own ignorance and push that back just a small bit further, and occasionally flip it into the 45th dimension.

If you push the edge, you push the systems and processes that follow. Quality of thought brings quality of practice. All of us live in a better tomorrow.

The tendency of changemakers, post-industrial entrepreneurs and business people is that they create a wave of new jargon to support their new way of doing things. Changemakers are an obvious example. Changemakers exist because they are dynamic, they are there to transform. But this dynamic-sounding word disappears into vacuity in discussions of what a change maker or change manager actually changes.  Surely, the role of any manager is to manage change. Though change managers can play an incredibly important role, they just can’t always get round to explaining what that is.

[To answer, briefly, a change manager communicating with business people is utterly convinced of what they do because they see the potential for organisational culture and alignment to increase effectiveness. This can be more difficult to keep an eye on when you are responsible for managing supply chains, or professional performance reviews, hence the recommendation for external help]

One word that is constantly under review is sustainability.  For some this means optimising recycling processes trading up from paper cups. For others it means widespread cultural change that entails a re-evaluation of how we relate to each other as well as to materials and processes. You can see I am on the latter side of the argument there. It is difficult to see how there can be continuously efficient use of resources without a culture that reimagines how they are used on constant basis. It requires a degree of creativity and effectiveness that can only sprout from deep-seated cultural change.


The word sustainability, however, has become abused. Many now disassociate with it. I have one client (sustainable to the marrow who from time to time refers to himself as a change manager)  who is now reverting to using the word responsibility, instead of sustainability. In fact, he is forbidding the use of sustainability entirely from his website.

It is easy to see why. Sustainability has been a reason to groan amongst employees that are facing a lot of changes and in the current climate, redundancies. I can imagine the sustainability team, with its targets is seen as a limiting factor for managers already pressured to produce results. Though this limitation is not inevitable.  The best businesses integrate sustainable or systems thinking at an early stage, using it to gain a competitive edge.

The issue of the word sustainability is that it is no longer used to signify what it used to describe. It is over-used and tired, available for green wash and not really a deep concern for the Earth or our ability to live happily upon it. Far better are the words integrity, responsibility, resilience, ecological thinking: they seems to get closer to the point but how long is it until these get tired clapped out and tired?


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