The Case for Re-Framing Sustainability

Confusing and emotionally charged, Sustainability is an aspirational concept that should not be abandoned, but re-framed as a tool for positive change.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “sustainability?”

I’m guessing something along the lines of: the color green, recycling, solar panels, eco-friendly, polar bears, tree hugging, nature and stuff made out of paper (bonus for brown paper).

Over the years, I’ve led hundreds of workshops and countless talks on the topic of myth-busting sustainability. At many of these, I’ve asked the same question about sustainability, and most people come up with the same types of responses. This pre-framed and overwhelmingly common interpretation of what “sustainability” means, is based on a very narrow media-generated and business-serving perspective of the term.

Even more interesting than what images are conjured up, is how the word makes people feel.

When you hear it, or read it, how do you feel? Annoyed? Confused? Frustrated? Ambitious? Ambiguous? Anxious? Excited? Scared? Does it evoke an eye-roll or a “whatever” feeling? The term “sustainability” has a tendency to induce fear or frustrated emotive responses. This is quite ironic when you consider that the concept is all about aspiring to achieve a better now than we currently have.

I feel optimistic about the possibilities that such an ambitious and admirable social aspiration holds. For the past decade I have been working to break the shackles that this word seems to bind itself to. It is frustrating when it’s used to describe absolutely everything from toilet paper to cars. And lets be honest, it gets flogged to death by corporations and the media wanting to cash in on a term that has emotional leverage. I once heard a reporter refer to “sustainable football,” and I’m still trying to figure out what that might actually entail.

Through my work, I have seen many people express a feeling of anxiety and confusion about sustainability. This is not at all surprising given that the majority of the framing around the need to act sustainably is done by evoking fear and insisting it is a moral imperative. Studies show that fear-framing is a sticky approach to making change, as it can demotivate people to participate and thus have the opposite effect, causing disengagement (also, this).

Professor George Lakoff from UC Berkley, has done extensive explorations into the effects of fear-framing on public policy and engagement. Lakoff proposes that frames are the invisible scaffolding that structure thinking and actions, and that re-framing is social change. Thus, change requires dominant frames to be challenged through the act of re-framing.

A recent article in The Guardian said it perfectly, “ What we need are social entrepreneurs who hack the hell out of the current system, destroy it and create new systems where the externalities are regenerative, sustainable, just and happy.”

A lot of the emotional issues around the word “sustainability” stem from the ambiguity of its meaning. Clearly it’s meant to invoke the concept of sustaining or continuing something. But it is often colloquially used as an abbreviation for the idea of sustainable development, which was first officially written about in the aspirational document from the 1980’s called the Brundtland Report. It was established as a reaction to evolving critical environmental and social issues of the day: oil prices were rising in the 1970’s, and at the same time more people were beginning to understand the limits to growth and the feedback loops of cause and effect (and how these played out with regard to environmental degradation and human health).

In 1983, the UN appointed Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway, as the chairperson of the World Commission on Environment and Development (which was later renamed The Brundtland Commission). Brundtland worked to achieve the ambitious objectives set out by the UN — to rally and unify the UN countries in embracing what was coined as “sustainable development.” Its meaning was defined in her seminal report Our Common Future, as this definition, if what sustainability is all about:

“ Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” — Our Common Future, 1987

A testament to its aspirational concepts, and the framing outlined in the report, sustainable development got really popular. Business and governments started to use it in their language ALL THE TIME. Sustainable this, sustainable that… corporate social responsibility reports and sustainability task forces popped up all over the place. Traction was building, and while some players were doing honorable jobs with their “sustainable development” initiatives, other efforts with the same name were really not so great. As it often happens when a concept gains popularity, the term started to be used as a buzz word, slowly losing its integrity and ending up a victim of its own success. “Sustainable development” started to get drained of its potency and became down right annoying — an overused concept devoid of meaning for many, and framed as a loose concept of “doing good” for others.

Sustainability is really about 3 very simple and important things: social, economic and environmental well-being.

Sustainability is the ability to consider and design outcomes in business, and society at large, that effect these three things in positive and hopefully regenerative ways. As opposed to maintaining the status quo, which is often devoid of any consideration for the social and environmental consequences of our actions, and thus perpetuates purely economic motivations.

All emotions aside, the rational approach to sustainability is to take a holistic and considerate approach to the decisions that we make in business, government and in our personal lives. It’s not a mandate for hugging trees, it’s a pre-requisite for participating effectively in this planet’s future, and it’s a damn good aspiration to have. Really the only alternative to sustainability is to NOT think about the consequences of our actions — and that’s pretty reckless.

You don’t need to be a climate scientist, an activist or even a liberal to get behind sustainability. To start, all you need to do is consider consequences. For example, would you leave your stove on when you’re heading off for vacation? Or, would you let your kids learn to drive by themselves? When we make choices, we consider the potential impacts of our actions and, in this case, inaction — that’s what Sustainability is really about, considering and designing for a future that avoids the catastrophes that inaction could potentially result in.

The United Nationals Sustainable Development Goals released in 2015, set 17 ambitious and universally important goals for social, environmental and economic development. Image:

For all those who still feel confused, anxious or annoyed by the term sustainability, consider the alternative and think through the powerful aspirations that such a concept could have if it were respected across society (you might also want to take my class on Sustainability). If we embrace the notion of making sure our decisions don’t have negative effects on people, the planet and the prosperity shared by all of us, imagine what a positive future we could embrace.

This is the critical part: a positive re-framing of the potential future we can share, as a species, on this awesome planet.

Sustainability is an important collective aspiration. It’s a remedy against the eventuality of us having to admit to our kids that we were too busy buying new smart phones every 15–18 months to give a fuck about the systems and services that sustain life on the incredible planet we share. It’s an opportunity for innovation, for working within the parameters of the planet and considerately evolving the way we do things, for re-imagining the archaic and outdated systems that were designed at a time when we knew less about the eco-systems that provide air, water and food to all of us.

Personally, I’m sticking to the aspiration of making things better. Rather than perpetuating our messy collective problems, I’ll keep innovating, looking for opportunities to intervene for positive change, searching for solutions, and doing whatever I can to push for the type of future I want to live in — which is, for lack of a better term, sustainable. And if we get there, then we can talk about being regenerative.

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I teach and write about how to make positive social and environmental change. If you liked this article, you might want to check out my classes on Sustainability, the Circular Economy, and Making Change.

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