The sustainability comms specialist Sustainly recently analysed the terms used by the top 100 companies in their Social Media Sustainability Index. They found 36 used “sustainability”, 16 used “corporate responsibility”, and 8 used “citizenship”. Other terms included “sustainable development” and the now decidedly less fashionable “CSR.” Sustainly, who emphasise the “storytelling of sustainability” quite sensibly question how effective communications to the public can be if “the very advocates of good business can’t work out a common term for the values they want to uphold.”
Whilst I agree that it might be more convenient if every organisation used the same, neat all-encapsulating term, I don’t think it’s realistic, nor may it be desirable for three main reasons. Let me explain.
Firstly, we need to accept that the field of sustainability is still young (relatively-speaking) and developing fast. Social media is changing perceptions and accelerating discussions. Isn’t it only natural that the language should evolve alongside the ideas? There is nothing wrong with that, and the range of terms used by the organisations in Sustainly’s survey is evidence that society is trying on the available words for size. Perhaps in five years time 90% of companies will revert to using “Sustainability” – or perhaps it will be an entirely new term yet to be coined. My point is- does it matter, since the language is necessarily a dynamic system? Shouldn’t we embrace it as part of the debate?
Secondly, I feel that the diversity of terms available allows organisations to pick the word that best describes their approach- and in so doing, they tell the reader something about them. This is no bad thing- after all, homogeneity is rather dull and undoubtedly the best sustainability programmes are customised to the organisation rather than copied from a textbook. Assuming one common term works across all organisations assumes they are speaking to an identical set of stakeholders- which is of course not true. Since arguably the company is best placed to decide what resonates with their customers, shareholders and interested parties, isn’t it positive that they can pick how to frame their sustainability efforts? Of course, you might say that the diversity of terms make comparison difficult, but since the majority of benchmarking is carried out by experts very capable of comparing one firm’s ‘responsible business’ efforts with another firm’s ‘social & environmental capital’ programme I hardly think it’s worth sweating over.
Lastly, in response to the argument that all this is confusing to Joe Public- I would argue that semantics mean very little. To the public, actions on social and environmental causes are far more meaningful than words. Whilst reporting has its place, I have seen many hours sweated over a report (to the practitioner’s frustration) at the expense of the real stuff- and lets be honest, how many of your friends and family debate corporate sustainability reports over breakfast, or have the time or inclination to search for the information online? In fact, I would go further and say that it is crucial for companies communicating with the public on specific sustainability programmes to tailor their message and use language that is relevant to that audience- whether it fits with the latest “buzzword” or not. The recipients of a youth community football programme do not need to know that this is considered part of the supporting organisation’s CR efforts- they simply want to know how to sign up.
If the good work is being done, and the benefit is felt by society at large- do semantics really matter all that much?
by Jenny Ekelund
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