Sustainability Community Tackles the Problem of Language

Sustainability Community Tackles the Problem of Language

Friday, September 16, 2011 - 7:20pm


Last month, Newt Gingrich-trained spokesman for anti-global warming forces, Mark Morano, announced on Fox TV the “collapse of global warming science.” And he’s got legions reiterating his message. According to Morano, 7 of 8 lobbyists on global warming are now "anti-action" lobbyists.

With record low temperatures last winter, Morano might seem to have a point. Except that the unprecedented storms pushed global warming proponents away from the term “global warming” some time ago. That side now refers to the issue as “climate change.”

Morano’s sponsor is also really good at using language to re-frame issues and reposition science. Its mission sounds righteous: “to promote free market solutions to environmental problems.”

Its tag line is masterful: mankind faces a threat "not from man-made global warming, but from man-made hysteria."  

Morano’s sponsor’s name? Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. 

On the other side of the free market climate change discussion you’ve got such names as “Sustainability,” “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR),” and “Socially Responsible Investing (SRI).” So you can see why climate change forces might want to rethink their language. 

And indeed, controversies rage over naming in every corner of the sustainability world:

  • Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, arguably at the academic forefront of CSR, abandoned the much-maligned CSR term last January in favor of “Shared Value.”

  • Socially Responsibility Investment (SRI) leaders stewed over the word “responsible” – did it imply that non-SRI investors were not responsible, in itself an irresponsible claim? – until the Wall Street Journal published an entire special section dedicated to Socially Responsible Investing. Even then, some SRI providers switched “Sustainable Investing.”

  • CleanTech suffered the same problem until a board member squashed resistance the old fashioned way. At the 10th annual CleanTech Forum meeting in New York, this brash venture capitalist got up in front of the crowd and ordered the philistines to stop undermining the brand and threatening the survival of their noble cause.


Perhaps the most interesting effort to get the language right is being undertaken by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. The ISSP Sustainability Lexicon Project was prompted by recent articles in mainstream business publications like Forbes and the Financial Times, which questioned the language used by sustainability experts. Ira Feldman spearheaded the Lexicon Project to address the question members were asking: “How can the profession speak with one voice, when we are speaking in many tongues?” The Lexicon Project will meet at next week's ISSP conference in Portland to review the results of a member survey. Feldman is optimistic: “I think we will be able to move the needle . . . to better harmonize the sustainability dialogue among practitioners in varied disciplines.”

Getting the language right is so important that many of the ISSP's conference sessions address the topic. The filmmaker Randy Olson will give a keynote, urging attendees to focus less on the complex science behind sustainability and more on the stories that move and persuade. “It's time for the science community to realize they are getting out-communicated, and put more effort into understanding how today's communication environment works,” Olson says.

The conference agenda features “Stories from the Field” in every session. Even the data presenters are telling stories: Cynthia Figge of CSRHUB, an online database that reports the CSR performance of 5,000 companies, will sit on the reporting and accountability panel, which she sees as an opportunity to tell “stories for the right-brained types, who look to numbers for the real story.”

If the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf is right and,Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about,” then Feldman and the ISSP are definitely doing important work for the cause. I’ve been working in the field since 2001 and I still stumbled over how to refer to it. Is it a field? An industry? A practice? A religion? When will they tell us?


Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

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