Jargon explosion holding back green agenda

A new study suggests fragmentation of language across the sustainability field is accelerating. It’s already causing problems, argues John Elkington.

Think of the state of the sustainability agenda and it’s hard not be reminded of one of the defining stories in western literature, that of the Tower of Babel – found early in the book of Genesis, which opens the Christian Bible. As many will recall, the narrative runs like this: after the flood, which the Bible tells us swept the known world and drowned most people, a united mankind came together, speaking one language, to build a massive tower with its “top in the heavens”. 

But that’s where things got sticky. God, spotting what they were up to, came down to inspect the works. Concerned there would be no stopping the builders’ ambitions should they be left to complete the tower, God decided to confound them – by mixing up their languages and scattering them across the Earth.

At its best, language can be a great unifier, but it can also create divisions and spur deep misunderstandings. We are not there quite yet, but my sense is that the fragmentation of languages across the sustainability agenda is already causing problems, and these are likely to get worse. So, while it may seem impossible, maybe it’s now time to think about how we might run the Babel story in reverse, creating a unified language and vocabulary for all those who are working to drive our economies in more sustainable directions.

Moving backwards at Rio

The events of 2012 have only fuelled my concern. Recall the UN Rio+20 summit in June, where one of the key targets was meant to be “green growth” to spur the development of the “green economy” – but where some Asian countries, particularly China, expressed concern about the way such concepts are currently defined.  “Towards Zero Impact Growth”, a new study by our colleagues at Deloitte Innovation in The Netherlands suggests that the proliferation of languages across the corporate responsibility, accountability and sustainability agendas is, if anything, accelerating.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the evolution of language – evolving fields of science and technology always spur the evolution of new (and often competing) concepts and terms. We also see the emergence of competing platforms, as in the early days of information technology, when rivals like Microsoft and Apple went head to head over their different versions of the future, for example whether open or closed architectures would prevail.

The same is now happening in the sustainability space as it becomes more commercial, and the clues include the growing array of terms now in use, a spread of language which many business people just getting involved say they find one of the hardest things to get their brains around. 

Just as different types of computer found it impossible to communicate and share data in the early days of the IT revolution, so we may now be running the risk of evolving different sustainability platforms that find it hard to communicate. How, for example, should we best connect such exciting fields as the triple bottom line, cradle-to-cradle design, base-of-the-pyramid business models, the circular economy, behavioural economics, biomimicry or zero-based targets?

Each of these concepts – and many others – are used by different communities, some overlapping, others not. In many cases, the concepts and terms are used as a badge of entry, linking to set views on related issues. For example, if you subscribe to the cradle-to-cradle theory of design, your aim will be to get to the point where all the materials used in a supply chain or an economy are completely biodegradable, or are captured by recovery and recycling systems that ensure an almost completely circular economy. Zero-based targets may be seen as a distraction, even when the very nature of cradle-to-cradle design implies driving the use of all toxics to zero.

In some cases, however, it may make sense to keep potentially toxic materials in the system, as long as they are not handled or discharged in ways that potentially cause problems. That is the approach that companies like Adidas, Nike and Puma are now taking with their innovative roadmap towards zero discharges of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC) in their supply chains in China.

To try and avoid confusion, Deloitte Innovation lists some of the things that “zero impact growth” is not. It does not, for example, mean “zero growth” or zero targets for everything. Instead, it aims to help set the boundaries for sustainable capitalism.  The Deloitte report quotes World War II American general Omar Bradley, as follows: “It is time we steered by the stars, not by the light of each passing ship.” The point being that we need a North Star definition of what we are trying to achieve if we are to avoid descending into confusion and inaction.

Scattered experts communities

To get a better grip on where leading corporations are on all of this, Deloitte surveyed companies that are members of the UN Global Compact, the Caring for Climate Program or the CEO Water Mandate. Using only publicly available information, the analysts investigated 65 companies, representing 10 core industries and 25 sectors.  The top scorer overall was Unilever, because of the ambitious targets embedded in its Sustainable Living Plan

In terms of best practice, there were various headings. Under “collaborative actions”, the spotlight fell on the six companies driving the ZDHC Roadmap project: Adidas Group, C&A, H&M, Li-Ning, Nike and Puma. And Puma was also spotlighted for best practice under the heading “internalisation of externalities”, for its Environmental Profit & Loss work.

As far as key barriers to further progress are concerned, the analysts point to one strongly reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Their research, they say, “revealed a lack of consistent definitions and descriptions that companies use to explain their sustainability efforts.” This gets in the way of both accurate analysis and, they suspect, effective implementation of the relevant corporate strategies. So clearly there is much work still to do here, but any attempts to converge the sustainability languages used will only be successful if they also help converge scattered expert communities and build real critical mass for transformational change.  

John Elkington is executive chairman at Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility. He blogs at and tweets at @volansjohn.

Homepage image by Greenpeace