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Author: Thea Nicholas
Date: 16 August, 2013

Sustainability – voted one of the most “jargoniest jargon” words that people ‘wish you would stop saying.’

How did such a well-meaning, virtuous concept get lumped with other moronic management-lingo, such as ‘innovation’, ‘new normal’ and ‘synergize’?

Its fall from grace began when politicians, consultants and media caught wind of it. They used the word indiscriminately to perpetuate something as ‘cutting edge’. With no particular link to ‘green stuff’, the term travelled the globe dropping into every existing sector known to man. Sustainability then found its way into boardrooms and fell under the poisonous spell of middle managers trying to gain the competitive edge by spouting business jargon. Again and again poor old sustainability was misused and overused until it became abstract and annoying.

At a grass roots level the term has had its own issues. It began with folks feeling initially wary of this ‘new thing’ that we were all supposed to be doing. Then it evolved into general confusion about what the term actually meant. In order to self educate, the average Joe could Google the word, but would find 126 million hits ranging from pages selling white goods to cars.

As the word became more main stream the confusion grew – “Betty have you heard of this new sustainability thing?”… “Yeah I have Doris…I bought a pack from the cereal aisle last week”. 

Has this misrepresentation diminished its importance? Is the public perception creating a barrier for people who are actually working towards fixing the un-sustainable? 

Or should we simply be happy that now millions of people are talking about this buzzword? No – not everyone understands the concept – but at least awareness is rising. Maybe this is one of the key steps in creating the critical changes we need. 

This is where the role of education for sustainability comes in. Yes – the term is imprecise and misused but education can help create real meaning, which is vitally important for moving forward. Understanding sustainability can be as simple or complex as you want to make it – what truly matters is the intention behind the word. 

Putting the jargon aside – in a nutshell it’s about doing something in such a way that we can continue doing it forever, without jeopardizing our natural systems, people and the future. At its core is the action of living mindfully and realising that everything is interconnected. Living sustainably is the act of knowing that personal choices have a knock on effect for both the natural and built world. It’s really about thinking about where your food, clothes, energy and other products come from and deciding whether you should buy and consume these things.

It is interesting to note that while people grapple with the concept of sustainability, we have little difficulty identifying what is ‘unsustainable’ in our society. We can rattle off a long list of problems – climate change, floods, droughts, consumerism, compromised food and water security, pollution, resources depletion, land degradation, refugees, ocean acidification, disease, and accelerated extinction. Perhaps it is better to use the word ‘unsustainability’ to help people work towards solving these complex environmental, social and economic challenges. Maybe this new word will reframe these problems as opportunities so we can create a new future story. Then our best and brightest minds will be working towards not building a unsustainable future and the average Joy will have clarity around what we don’t want to see in the world.

So next time you find yourself cringing at the misuse of the word sustainability – avoid getting hung up on semantics. Yes – the term can be classified as annoying jargon, but the intention behind the word is what matters. Furthermore education will be an essential tool for creating real meaning behind the concept. 

Thea Nicholas – Sustainability Educator