I had a call from a reader the other day wanting to talk about sustainability. He didn’t fit the usual demographic of the visitors to newhope360 in that he's an engineer who works for a chemical company in the concrete business.
When he uses the term “sustainability,” he means how well the materials used in his business will hold up to the elements—mechanical stresses, water, salt, freezing. It’s a narrow, precise definition. He didn’t understand what we meant when we use the term.
When we say “sustainability” in this business, we mean a lot of things. Maybe too many things. Its most basic meaning means harvesting materials from nature in such a way that the resource will not be depleted over time, whether it’s cascara bark or baobab or anchovies or krill. It can mean being sensitive to indigenous cultures in the gathering of wildcrafted botanicals in developing nations. It can mean dealing fairly with farmers, so they will want to work with you next year. Some people even extend the meaning to being sensitive to the needs of the workers in your own plant. Painted with the broadest brush, “sustainability” has come vaguely to mean, “doing things the right way.”
It can come to mean so many things that it doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s a similar situation to the use of the word “natural” or “green.” Who can say what these terms mean precisely?
What 'sustainable' should mean
This leaves open the door for greenwashing, in which a manufacturer can make a few small changes in their processes or supply chain and suddenly their product is “green.” How do you gainsay these companies if you can’t define what you mean when you say “green?”
“Organic” at least has an agreed-upon meaning. You either do things in accordance with the standards set out by the USDA or you don’t. And if you choose not to, you don’t get to use the word on your label.
There is a certain amount of standards and certifications fatigue in the natural products business, which I can well understand. And there are already certifications that apply to various aspects of the sustainability question, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council for the ingredients in the natural products business that come from maritime sources. I’m not arguing for another.
But let us—those of us in the messaging end of this business, whether we be writers, PR reps or communications execs—try to be more precise in how we use the word. Let’s use “sustainable” to mean the continued supply of the materials in question, and use other words to apply to the sociological aspects of how a company does business. As with “green” and “natural,” if we overuse it, we’re going to lose it.