Let’s stop with ‘sustainability’

Personal column by Durk Bosma, previously published on Marketingfacts.

For some time, I had been walking around with an idea. Born from the realisation that the word ‘sustainable’ is not the most appropriate word for what we are trying to achieve with ‘sustainable’ behaviour. Although the literal meaning is of course unquestionable and should be a key driver in the choices we make, both privately and professionally. What is this literal meaning again? I think this is the clearest explanation:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Source: Brundtland, UN 1987 conference)

A hollow phrase

I have a growing aversion to the word itself. It has become a hollow, overused term. So overused that there had to be legislation on when companies can and cannot use the term. The literal meaning is tucked too far away to be motivating.

Moreover, the word has a strong association with environmental sustainability. But of course, something that is truly sustainable is not only ecologically sustainable, but also fair for all concerned and also good for people’s health.

In the Dutch language there is an additional downside. The term (‘duurzaam’) is strongly intertwined with the term ‘expensive’ (duur), due to its semantic similarity. And that association makes behaving sustainably unattainable for many people (at least, they think so).

But then what?

I have been mulling over an alternative for some time. And  last week I had a hunch. We should replace the word ‘sustainable’ with ‘future-proof’. Then suddenly it becomes crystal clear why we should change: because otherwise we won’t be able to do what we like to do in the future. Moreover, it applies to all possible forms of long-term sustainability – ecological, social, etc. Another important point: this term (also) takes into account economic sustainability. After all, something that is very good for the climate but unaffordable is not going to get us anywhere either. The term ‘future-proof’ encourages taking into account all interests of all stakeholders, now and in the future. Finally, it (I think) works excellently in other languages precisely because it is a simple concept.

What do consumers think?

We at Future of Food Institute are researchers by nature and we like to test our own trains of thought. Therefore, in a small-scale survey (50 participants of our Food Forum), we found out how Dutch consumers think about the difference between the two concepts.

The conclusions from this little study in brief:

  • The two concepts largely overlap in meaning, but there are nuances.
  • ‘Sustainable’ is indeed mainly associated with environment and climate and to a lesser extent with fairness.
  • Future-proof is mostly associated with ‘things that last’.

As one participant put it:
“The words mean roughly the same thing, but when I think of sustainable, I think of climate more than future-proof. That comes from the use in the media I think. ‘Future-proof is also used in a more neutral form, for example when a bridge or quay is renovated and can last for years again and is therefore future-proof again.”

Thereby, most consumers are perfectly able to imagine that associations with climate can also fall under the meaning of ‘future-proof’.

“To me, the words sustainable and future-proof do not mean the same thing, but they are related. By acting sustainably, you make the world future-proof. So livable for future generations. I would call this behaviour ‘sustainable’ because this behaviour is what you apply now, it is sustainable. By doing this, you do make the planet more future-proof.”

For others, this means that quite a thought leap is needed. Those who have a strict definition of ‘things that last’ find it difficult to think (also) about how those things came about.

“In my view, ‘something that lasts’ is not necessarily good for people and the environment, but it is therefore future-proof. After all, it may have been produced in the most polluting and degrading way. In my view, that then has little to do with sustainable (taking people and the environment into account).”

We also found that a text with the term ‘future-proof’ in it was rated more often as inspiring and more often as a text that incites thinking than the same text with the term ‘sustainable’. However, the text with the term ‘sustainable’ was found slightly clearer, which is logical, as people are more accustomed to using this term.

Plea for future-proof

So there is still some work to be done. But if we can load the term forward-looking with the associations associated with climate and fairness and thus a viable future for all, we will create a much more inspiring framework within which communication and marketing can take place. And thus can be more effective and thus encourage more people to behave sustainably.

This, then, is my plea. From now on, we will no longer talk about sustainable. Future-proof is the word we use from now on when we mean that we are going to ensure that what we do now does not harm future generations.

We believe that understanding consumers is key to making the food system more sustainable. Successful innovation and impactful communication require a solid foundation of consumer insight. 

We are the insights partner of choice for food companies and non-profits  that aim to have a positive impact on society and our planet. Together we empower consumers to make food choices that are good for them as well as for the planet.

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