Nausea of sustainability: symptoms, causes and remedies
This is the first such long break from articles since the birth of Dress Ecode. It is not just for the daily things to do, nor for a loss of motivation. If there is one thing I continue to strongly believe in, it is the need to adopt a more responsible life, with attention to people, to the resources used, to nature. It’s something else, which slowly contributed to an arrest.
I’m sick of sustainability.
The causes? Abuses, levity, weak competence.
Nausea not of the concept it evokes, nor of its practical application in life, but of the word. In the last few months it has come to surround me everywhere. It could be a little bit because content appears on social media based on personal preferences. The point, however, is that it is now objectively everywhere. We are in a phase in which most companies claim to be sustainable, brands promote sustainability content, influencers talk about it, media, social media, TV, supermarket product packaging, billboards , radio jingles, TV commercials, private social profiles have no qualms about showing it off. Anyone who talks about it and everywhere it is talked about. Up to nausea.
“I admit to a long and growing angst over the misuse of the word “sustainable” and its derivatives. In fact I am well known for making a big song and dance every time the topic comes up. I am sure my friends and colleagues groan whenever the issue arises. They are good enough to humour me. Even those who may say I am cynical often share my concerns – and every year the abuse gets worse. So this year we inaugurate a new Transition Town High Wycombe Award. It is the “LA-LA Sustainability” – the Laughable Abuse of Language Award (Sustainability)”
“The important thing is that we talk about it”, someone replies promptly. Are we really sure?
Anyone talks about it.
I see people I’ve known for a long and short time, live and on social media, who overnight present themselves as sustainability experts, without education, without studies, without bases. I notice ex-colleagues, whom I remember light years away from the concept of environmental and social sustainability, glossing over ethics, now in top corporate positions in this area (someone at the time even laughed at me for concerns about environmental impact) . On social media, I read and hear things that aren’t really helpful in lightening the human footprint on the environment, because that should ultimately be the goal of talking about sustainability.
It is not enough to be self-taught, to read articles, a few books, a short course, or even to have produced a line of clothing or “sustainable” products. Measures to protect the environment are not improvised, neither in fashion nor in other sectors. It is not something that concerns only sustainability: ours is a time of blurred boundaries between science and entertainment, in which we freely improvise doctors or chemists or engineers. The authoritative voices are no longer the experts in the sector, but the most followed characters, whom we listen to pronounce on any topic because we like them, we feel they are similar or because if they have followed then they must be good. We are in the era of “you too can create a course”, of the extreme confidence in self-taught education, of “I read it on the internet (so it’s a fact)” without curiosity and depth to explore sources and truthfulness.
Everywhere they talk about it.
“What is sustainable design? It’s a notion that is everywhere, but no one seems to know exactly what it means” (Joshua Bolchover 2012, Vitamin Green).
Sustainability – abused, stuck on sites, pages, profiles, products, newspapers, videos, articles, it sheds all meaning and loses credibility. I am reminded of a graph by the digital comedian Xkcd: the use of the “S” word is inherently unsustainable, and at some point in the not too distant future (2109) constant abuse will render it meaningless. I have the feeling that we are ahead of the times, it will not be necessary to wait so many decades.
Exponential diffusion is not a personal sensation. According to the Global Language Monitor, “sustainability” is the 10th most used word in the world (2020). Considering that half of the other terms in the top ten are linked to a single phenomenon, the pandemic, that’s not bad positioning.
98% of Forbes Top 50 Brands have used at least one cliché on their sites. On average they used the word ‘sustainability’ ten times per web page, while major sustainable brands (such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Allbirds) only use the word once (Chen 2021).
A concept gone bad?
Advertising Age called sustainability one of 2010’s “slangest slang” words that “you want to stop saying”. Why? Sustainability is “a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. It is not synonymous with ‘green’. It is no wonder that such a word has been used indiscriminately by politicians, businesses and the media because not only sustainability is a hot topic that everyone wants to promote themselves as cutting edge, but misuse is made easy due to the lack of a universally shared definition. Tt’s no wonder that such a word has been used indiscriminately by politicians, businesses, and media alike because not only is sustainability a hot topic of which everyone wants to promote themselves as being at the cutting edge, but misuse is made easy due to the lack of a universally agreed upon definition. The difficulty in coming up with a shared definition is complicated by the fact that sustainability applies to a multitude of dynamically interrelated issues — environmental, economic, and social — to name a few”(Lammers 2011).
Let’s admit it, the abuse risks provoking antipathy, arousing intolerance especially in those who flee banality and repetitiveness. The language about sustainability is often boring and full of clichés. Careless use of the term causes confusion and skepticism. It reduces the will to act and intervene on the issue. Those who are experts turn up their noses and, if they feel like it, approach with skepticism. Those who are not interested feel bored if they do not develop hives. Those who are new listen the first few times they hear about it, only to realize that on the one hand one thing is sustainable, on the other the opposite. The worst is when those who in good faith approach, follow the indication “sustainable” and later discover that in reality it is not, feeling teased: we have lost forever a possible travel companion towards a more responsible lifestyle.
“It is time to ban the empty word “sustainability”. The word has become so corrupt that it is not only meaningless, but even obscures the real problems that need to be addressed. To begin with, we need to certify that all human activities have impacts, and these can go far beyond current sustainability indicators. However, we must take responsibility for efforts to minimize or mitigate them”.
Marley Jack, 2013
This is all a pity.
The word sustainability is a useful way to describe how more efficient use of resources can help preserve the conditions for long-term economic growth (Cummins Kate 2012). It would be a shame to ban it, giving up the call to the deeper sense that all human activities have an impact and to the concept of availability of resources for our and future generations, which should be sufficient to make us want to be sustainable.
The topic is actually of interest more and more. On Google in the last 5 years (November 2016 – November 2021) the search on the web for the term has been increasing (in the graph below, the numbers represent the search interest with respect to the highest point of the graph in relation to the region and the period. The value 100 indicates the highest search frequency).
So. what to do?
The dialogue on sustainability helps to raise awareness and stimulate action, but let’s use it more sparingly, with knowledge of the facts, and with professionalism. Let’s talk about it in a competent and engaging way, clarifying what we are referring to, with data, sources, research, without improvisation. Let’s stop throwing the term there, even if in good faith and with the best intentions other than wanting to ride the crest of the wave. Let’s involve an expert, or sometimes “choose silence” (Gheno 2019), doing our own work and not that of someone else.
If on the one hand it is true that we need clear and objective criteria, both to define words in a universally valid way (they are coming) and to identify sustainability experts, on the other hand we can in the meantime – as in other fields – open the eyes and try to believe again in those who have a professional background, combined with dedication and commitment.
Personally, I would like to try to talk about it in a different way, experimenting, based on what I have learned over the years. So as not to bore the reader, and also not to bore us. Furthermore, I am reducing pages, profiles and sites to view, to avoid bitterness and gastritis in front of the improper and light use of sustainability where there are no skills. Knowing everything in depth about such a vast topic is difficult, but there are middle shadows between everything and nothing. Finally, we gladly support companies, brands and designers in communicating sustainability with transparency and ethics far from banality and greenwashing.
Do you also find yourself in the symptoms described? If so, please tell us your experience.