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The 'Dirty Words' of Sustainability Messaging: Why We Need a New Approach

It’s no surprise that people simply do not want to talk about sustainability — and why it’s important in the first place. Climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, plastics pollution, environmental degradation and other doomsday topics, along with the host of buzz words in the sustainability lexicon (“green,” “eco-friendly,” “sustainable”) have all become dirty words not to be uttered in corporate meetings or coffee shops for fear of losing one’s audience — or worse, ridicule.

The unfortunate truth remains: These massive global problems are not going away anytime soon, especially without human intervention. As a communicator and behavioral change influencer, it is my job to understand and adapt strategies that allow my team and I to communicate broadly and effectively to those inside and outside of our progressive bubbles.

Changing the Conversation

What are we to do as brand leaders when the adjectives used to describe environmental advocacy and life-positive design are met with rejection? My firm has struggled with this challenge to steer away from the ‘dirty words’ of the sustainability movement. But given the increase in greenwashing claims and pushback against legitimate facts, we are coming around to the idea that it’s time to change the conversation. It’s time to talk about the benefits of these designs: how innovative the companies are, the strength of the design’s performance — and then we can add messaging on the environmental impact, rather than those details tailoring the headline.

Now, I must admit … this is still a hard pill to swallow. I came from a public relations agency that didn’t quite align with my values. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of my values until I was faced with a moral dilemma against a client who represented the fracking industry. Only then was I inspired to learn more and to act. There I found Blue Practice, a firm solely dedicated to representing companies doing good — companies that embrace sustainability as a model for their business. With that mission as my firm’s backdrop, it’s tough to release the drive to champion environmental activism and sustainable design.

But even sustainability gurus question the term. Take William McDonough, famed architect, designer and co-author of the groundbreaking books, Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle, who once asked, “Who would want simply a ‘sustainable’ marriage?” After years of working with the leader, we are convinced that “humans can certainly aspire to more than that.” And while he has gravitated away from the term for this very reason, we have continued to advocate for ‘sustainability,’ because it has finally gained broad understanding and popularity across industries and the public.

Regardless of this connection to the movement, however, if we cannot sway the masses, leaders in corporate entities and everyone in between, what good can we really do? Therefore, yes, it’s time we recognize that sustainability initiatives have value that go beyond environmental friendliness — they’re human-friendly, most often cost-efficient in the long run, offer ample triple-bottom-line returns, and allow companies and their employees to feel good about the work they are doing. By adapting messaging that is inclusive of all the benefits of these businesses and initiatives, we can promote their advantages without alienating audiences, shutting people down or turning them away.

Well-designed products have an inherent beauty that make them more attractive. Energy-efficient lighting control systems offer greater cost savings and ease of use. Electric vehicles provide clean air and reduce operating costs. Solar and wind power generate efficient, locally sourced energy without releasing unwanted chemicals into the air. Products and buildings can be designed in a way that plans for and measures effects at all stages of use — built for recyclability or biodegradability. This is true beauty: endless reuse, good for people, planet and business.

So, will we stop using the term “sustainability”? “Environmentally friendly”? “Eco” or “green”? Well, probably not. I know there are people like me who get amped up when they hear about the good things brands are doing. From my team’s perspective as communicators, we use language as a device to find a common connection between our clients, the issues they support, and broad and diverse audiences. We are on the frontlines of the information industry, and as such we see the value in taking a dual approach to driving positive change: working within a framework of understanding and using the tools of language that are available, while also striving to move the conversation to new areas, encourage broader understanding, and ignite appreciation for the most authentic and aspirational aspects of sustainability — that which transcends just the word.

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