Green: Generic Sustainability Term or Smart Buzzword?

Feb 21, 2012   //   by Lacey Miller   //   Marketing & Communication, Metrics & ROI, Terminology  //  No Comments

When I begin to discuss sustainability with people, I get a lot of blank stares and questions. I then default to the buzzword ‘green’…

“Oh, I understand what that means!”

But that easy and fast response tends to make me cringe.

I am so passionate about sustainability but qualifying it with the concept of green, triggers images of hippies chained to trees. What I am talking about is an all encompassing term that defines responsibility; responsibility to our environment, our local communities and the world. I don’t want to deemphasize the importance of sustainability with such a simple word but I also know that an easy understanding of the concept is the only way we will grow the importance of sustainability…and, I will admit, in the world of SEO, green is a major keyword.

So what does green mean?

As a marketing mind, I consult Wikipedia for societal and trending definitions, and I found exactly the cliché explanation I was looking for:

“Recent political groups have taken on the color as symbol of environmental protection and social justice, and consider themselves part of the Green movement, some naming themselves Green parties. This has led to similar campaigns in advertising, as companies have sold green, or environmentally friendly, products.”

Another cringe-worthy moment as I read about the Green movement and green products in one paragraph. One speaks to capitalism and a greater economy; the other, to that “green” cleaning product you just bought that is “better for you and the environment”.  Green tends to be overused and misused, usually highlighting only a small piece of sustainability; I want to broaden people’s view with a much wider range of topics, the important ones.

In an article by Bahar Gidwani, he identified the rainbow of sustainability, the numerous “colors” that define this growing market. He surveyed a few thousand users from his site, CSRHub, and assigned a color to the different focuses of each group.

Green: environment focused; this group ranked environmental issues as their highest concern.

Blue: community and employee focused; this group pushed up the importance of community and employee engagement, and de-emphasized environment and governance.

Red: governance focused; this group wanted companies to be ethical, have a balanced and diverse board, and to be transparent about their behavior.

Grey: “all things being equal”; this large group of people declared all topics of sustainability to be more or less equal.

White: follow a leader; these members did not have a strong opinion, or they were more interested to know how “everyone else” feels about various issues.

Perfect; we now have a wider spectrum of colors to help us break down sustainability but what will really help professionals define this growing industry?

Robert Pojasek, via GreenBiz.com, defined sustainability as follows:

“Sustainability is about behaving in a way that can be continued or sustained. To operate sustainably, an organization must act in a way that is consistent with and supports the well-being of the physical environment and all of the biological communities and economies of the locations where they operate.”

He didn’t mention ‘green’ once and defined sustainability in a way that people can understand, well most people; Pojasek’s definition may elicit a few blank stares as it is strongly intellectual.

I want to move away from the simplicity of green but still use common words that give a smart, but understandable definition.  Then I came across and article by Tim Mohin titled “Less is More Obvious: Why Sustainability Is So Hard To Define.” Mohin put it as simply as this,

“It is an expectation that you treat people and our planet with respect.”

Amazingly well put. Society lives off this planet, we will affect it but we can control the repercussions by respecting the world around us.

What do you think? Is ‘green’ too strong and important of a buzzword to leave out or can we start to explain sustainability by using words such as respect and responsibility?