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"Sustainability" Sucks

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 22, 2009

Here’s a provocative thought for Earth Day. The word “sustainability” is terrible. Sustainability does not conjure up images of a hopeful, expanding society built on a new energy base that encompasses new resource-sensitive values. Hey, here’s an idea, let’s use wireless, gps and video-conferencing to connect people to resources so they get more service and use less stuff. If you can use a Mini, a BMW or a truck anytime, anywhere instead of owning all three, isn’t that better? If you can have a doctor notify you exactly when he’s free, isn’t that better than waiting an hour? If you can discover just when that office or classroom is free, isn’t that better than putting up more edifices? Fluid Time—the way most Gen-Yers move through space these days.

People-centric technology = innovative sustainability.

But the word “sustainability” is kind of heavy, doesn’t roll of the tongue easily and implies one big hairshirt.

John Thackara likes “green” as in the “green economy.” Me too.

I also like “light,” like living lightly on the land. I believe Larry Halpern, the landscape architect, used the term “living lightly on the land” first when he designed Sea Ranch on the northern coast of California.

OK. Which word would you substitute for “sustainability?” Or would you prefer it?

Reader Comments

Clayton Borah

April 22, 2009 6:36 PM

I don't really like any of the terms we have. Sustainability is hard to say, "Green" seems so trendy. I like the ideas of living lightly, simply and competently, taking advantage of innovation to improve and simplify our lives. How do we express that in one word? I wish I knew.

Marc Resnick

April 22, 2009 8:02 PM

I like your concept a lot. But the idea of sustainability goes beyond "green." Its about using all kinds of resources in ways that ensure they will never get used up. So "green" is good for natural resources, but there is also financial sustainability (money) and human sustainability (workers don't go home in worse shape than when they arrived at work). I am sure there's other concepts as well.

I don't know of a word that covers all of these.

Jim Sener

April 22, 2009 10:04 PM

I agree - green is trendy and greenwashing is abundant. How about "smart-living" (He is a smart-living expert) Which could encompass building, travel, eco, gadgets etc.

Another option: Since we are using about 5 planets worth of resources - how about "oneplanet living"?
One planet. One life. One choice.

scott crawford

April 23, 2009 4:30 AM

Agree with Marc. Flat footed or not, sustainability has a meaning and implications to decision-making that go well beyond green.

The word goodness comes close. Life is good. Doing good begets good. But it's still not sustainability.

As egos with opposable thumbs, we try so hard to to be clever in our marketing of stuff we often sabotage our best intents. And that's a shame. Even the trendier "thrivability" is just that, trendy.

Sustainability is the goal. Sustainability is the word.
Why muck it up with cleverness?

20 100

April 23, 2009 12:07 PM

What about "common sense"?


April 23, 2009 3:48 PM

In terms of nomenclature, I like how Alex Steffen uses "Bright Green" to connote a forward thinking approach to environmentalism, using all available new technologies and approaches as well as the old ones. ( The "Bright" also lends that air of hope and possibility. But it also isn't really a blanket term such as sustainability. I do think sustainable makes more sense as a term in connection with its definition, where green is easily bent and misconstrued, so that you do get a lot of "greenwashing" where people say that just about anything is "green" when really it might only represent an incremental solution (like the oxymoronic "fuel-efficient" SUV's) where a better solution is probably radically different (electric mini-cars). I guess here is where the qualifier "Bright" comes in so that its a little more specific, but "green" is still fairly abused, which is unfortunate.


April 23, 2009 5:15 PM

I agree with 20 100, the fact that it has a 'name' totally works against it in that you're either sustainable or not. The sooner it becomes mandatory the better. Not likely to happen any time soon though.


April 23, 2009 11:00 PM

Didn't we just have this discussion about the word "innovation"? Why are we hung up on nomenclature and naming - marketing speak? Any term that gets traction is going to get abused - they have a shelf life. Keep spinning our wheels thinking of new ways of saying the same thing - I think not. What we want is a sustainable existence - that means the important things in life - sustainable food and energy supplies, community, development, etc. All the rest IS marketing speak. Lets talk less about it and do more about it.


April 24, 2009 8:32 AM

Fluid works. Admittedly not as catchy as you'd like but you're right, we have to be more fluid--moving/changing to whatever needs have to be met.. To sustain doesn't sound good, because its as if you are doing the bare minimum or doing it because you have to.

I don't know. I'm stumbling with this but I'd like to be more active with my voice.

Nicole Chen

April 25, 2009 12:49 AM

Adam Werbach suggests BLUE:

"People who are part of the BLUE movement aspire to make a difference through the people and products that touch their lives. It encompasses green issues like protecting our last wild places and reducing our output of CO2, but it also includes personal concerns like saving money, losing weight, and spending time with friends and family."

Whatever the new "name" may be, I would also stay away from simply "green" - sustainability encompasses social justice concerns as well, and "green" seems mass-accepted now to pertain to mostly ecological concerns. I love the idea of "living lightly" though!

Olivia Sprinkel

April 26, 2009 9:07 PM

Interesting discussion. I like the idea of living lightly too - which led me to think of the word 'hozho' - which is a Navajo word and doesn't have a direct translation in English, but which incorporates the meanings of beauty, goodness, harmony, and is meant to be part of every day life, an integral part of every action and state of being, to be at one and part of your environment. Certainly an ideal to aim for - and which stresses the importance of our own personal connection with the concept, whatever it is called, rather than seeing it as something impersonal and separate from us.
More definitions of sustainability at:

Hemant Puthli

April 27, 2009 9:41 AM

I think the best word that accurately conveys the full meaning of sustainability, and only that, is .... (drum roll) ... "sustainability"!

Sorry, "green", "light", et al. (candidates for substitution) but you don't quite cut it, IMHO. Green is too a la mode and cliched, stands for too many things all related to the environment alone. (Sustainability is not just about the environment.) Light is more suggestive of low-impact as different from sustainable - highly correlated concepts, perhaps, but not the same. Besides, light also has a slightly frivolous overtone, suggestive of a low calorie beer. Lacks gravitas.

Let's stay with sustainability and learn to more smoothly roll it off our lazy tongues. In an era of brevity in 140 characters, it is not unusual to seek easier, shorter, quicker (sounds like cheaper / faster / better?) ways to say things. But we pay for it by losing out on semantics and the real meaning behind things.

Christy Stadelmaier

April 29, 2009 12:24 AM

Words do indeed have meaning, and "green" is a color - plain and simple. Nothing more, nothing less. Using the word the way we have come to use it is just a silly conceit.

"Sustainability" is what we want and therefore, it is the proper word. It is a shame we need nomenclature for a concept that I learned at my parents knees: "Waste not, want not."

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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