S – Word Ssssssshhhhhh

IT MAY be the most overused word of the 21st century – and we’re among the worst offenders. But does it mean so many different things to so many people that we’re better off avoiding it altogether? We ask the experts.

Foodservice Footprint Sustainable-300x295 S - Word Ssssssshhhhhh Features Green Scene  XKCD WWF-UK Vincent Neate Two Tomorrows Sustainability Sustain Sarah Daly Sachin Sharma Rob Pearson Paul Simpson My Green Eye Lorraine Smith KPMG Forum for the Future Dax Lovegrove Dan Crossley Corporate Culture Compass Group UK & Ireland CArbon Disclosure Project Amanda Long Alex Jackson













We’re ahead of the curve at FoodserviceFootprint.com – pioneers, if you will, of word overuse. A clever little graphic by XKCD (which we can’t publish) shows that by 2036 most publications will be using a certain word at a frequency of once per page – and we’re already on twice that.


In the past year, we’ve used it 676 times in print alone. Or about 82.28 times per magazine. We’re as guilty as anyone for overuse of this one critical word – and we’re meant to be the wordsmiths.


But it’s a good word, isn’t it (?). Why else would everyone be using it? It’s like “wicked” in the 80s or “sweet” in the 90s or “OMG” in the 00s. But in this case, the popularity of the term represents its high profile and so the greater breadth of the debate. As Dan Crossley, an adviser with Forum for the Future, suggests: “If it’s a sign that more people are thinking about social, environmental and economic issues, then great.”


Sesquipedalians out there might disagree, but the beauty of the word is its depth and breadth of meaning – it captures all of the things Crossley mentions and more (health, for example).


On the flip side, because it’s used in so many different ways it can create confusion and confrontation. “In the case of food, to one group it will mean eating local organic produce, and to the next it will mean planting more genetically modified organisms,” says Lorraine Smith, the director of the think tank that has taken the word as its own. Organic and GM in the same basket: dangerous stuff.


It can also cause confusion around the dinner table. “When I tell anyone what I do they nearly always ask a question about renewable energy,” says the consultant Sarah Daly, who also writes the My Green Eye blog. “The focus has been so firmly on energy, and to a certain degree waste, that most people don’t see the implications of other issues like water and pollution – but also issues concerning ecology, human rights and equality.”


KPMG’s Vincent Neate also has the word in his job title. He pulls no punches, suggesting that the term has almost become irrelevant. “I always find that words that mean different things to different people are the best sort of words to use because you can continue to kid yourself that everyone understands you.” Whether they do or not is often not the point, however. WWF-UK’s head of business and industry, Dax Lovegrove, says forget the language and focus on action.


Just out of interest, what is the definition? The Oxford English Dictionary suggests: “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Hence the irony might be that the term becomes unsustainable and, as Neate suggests, perhaps even die out. That could mean one of two things: it’s either been replaced by an acronym or there’s no need for it because we are living, working, eating within the world’s limits. Or we aren’t and the human race has died out (a third, slightly more macabre, scenario).


So before any of these scenarios unfolds, we’ve decided to ask a handful of consultants, campaigners and writers how they define sustainable.


“There is a risk that the meaning of the word ‘sustainable’ is being diluted the more it’s used. And consumers are likely to get confused as it’s applied to such a broad range of associations …sustainable business, sustainable agriculture, sustainable cities, even financial sustainability. I see the definition as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

While sometimes it’s interchanged with the term corporate responsibility – which is more about an organisation managing its operations to minimise its impact on the environment and society – I believe the two both have a valuable role to play in today’s language, and indeed shaping today’s society.”

Rob Pearson, consultant, Two Tomorrows


“I run Sustain’s Stop the Slop campaign, which is calling on the government to set compulsory health and sustainability standards for hospital food. However, we almost never use the word ‘sustainability’ because the term is not well understood, particularly by the public. More often than not, when people use the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’ they actually have something more specific in mind: for example, they care about animal welfare, healthy eating or protecting endangered fish. I think we communicate more effectively when we stick to specifics, rather than using ‘sustainability’ as a catch-all term.”

Alex Jackson, campaign lead, Sustain


“For me the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ aren’t used anywhere near enough as there are still too many people and organisations who don’t have it embedded in their everyday vocabulary. In an ideal world we would be asking if every single thing we do is sustainable or not and actively finding the more sustainable alternative rather than defaulting to what we’ve always done. The multiple definitions of sustainability cause huge confusion. The most rigid definition of sustainability is that there is no net deficit to the planet by the action we take.”

Sarah Daly, consultant/writer, My Green Eye


“Whether there are discussions around moves to a green economy in the UK or sustainable development goals at Rio, the language matters less and it’s the action that matters more. Many business and political leaders understand the need to update capitalism in some way so that the world’s growing population begins to prosper in ways that are fairer and within the planet’s natural limits and so now is the time to put this thinking into action.”

Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry, WWF-UK


“The quantity of use isn’t a problem in itself – after all, the word ‘economy’ is used a lot because it is important. The rising use of ‘sustainable’ shows a shift in consciousness which is positive, given how unsustainable many of today’s systems have become. However, the word needs to be used accurately with attention to its true meaning – pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability using techniques that allow for continual reuse. In environmental terms, the meaning of sustainable is clear but inaccurately using the term, implying something to be sustainable when it is not, is unhelpful and over time could lessen its impact.”

Paul Simpson, CEO, Carbon Disclosure Project


“The word ‘sustainable’ is grossly overused and almost becoming an irrelevancy. What really matters is that business leaders recognise their personal and collective responsibilities to safeguard the environment. I always find that words that mean different things to different people are the best sort of words to use because you can continue to kid yourself that everyone understands you. Language continually evolves and perhaps the use of the word will die out (because it doesn’t fit nicely into any particular TLA or three-letter acronym) and be replaced.”

Vincent Neate, head of climate change and sustainability, KPMG


“What ‘sustainability’ really means in relation to business is the need to put long-term strategic thinking at the heart of the organisation and what it does. Private, public and third sector organisations have spent years talking about different definitions for sustainability; what’s currently being discussed is that the sustainable future of business must start with providing customers with the products and services they need to live more sustainable lives. By doing this, industry will contribute to creating sustainable communities and stronger, more sustainable markets to operate in.”

Amanda Long, CEO, Corporate Culture


“The term ‘sustainability’ is being used more and more in certain circles, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. If it’s a sign that more people are thinking about social, environmental and economic issues, then great. Obviously there is a risk that terms get used so much that they become meaningless. However, I’d say that we need more people to embrace sustainability, so let’s not scare them off by worrying too much about terminology.”

Dan Crossley, principal sustainability adviser, Forum for the Future


“The word ‘sustainability’ probably is overused, and this sometimes does a disservice to those of us working towards the principles it seeks to bring about (although we are occasionally guilty of this overuse ourselves). I’d suggest instead that we use terms focused on relevant industry drivers and impacts. For example, how will the driver of changing dietary preferences in emerging economies have an impact on access to nutrition, farmer livelihoods or greenhouse gas emissions?”

Lorraine Smith, director, SustainAbility


“It’s fair to say that in today’s world, the term ‘sustainability’ can mean different things to different people. It is really important, therefore, that as an organisation you define what you mean by sustainability, and provide a clear explanation of what your sustainability commitments are and what they relate to. We subscribe to the UN Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition provides us with a framework for making all our business decisions and the execution of all of our operational activity.”

Sachin Sharma, head of CR and environment, Compass Group UK & Ireland