In the reports I listened to while mowing the lawn, the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ littered every other sentence, but no-one seemed able to explain what this meant in practice, and believe me, the interviewers kept asking the question.
We tend to associate the word with the environment and green policies, so ‘sustainable’ has become jargon for something laudable and good (which is why politicians use it so much), but like other buzz words, it takes on its own meaning depending who’s using it.
Without trying too hard, I came across the Sustainable Restaurant Association, sustainability at the 2012 Olympics, sustainable investment and finance (UKSIF) and a consultancy in US that specialises in the subject that actually calls itself SustainAbility.
It would be interesting to get representatives of each together and compare their definitions of the word.
There will be similarities of course, although I suspect that where there is an overlap, it won’t really be anything of substance that might aid comprehension. ‘Sustainability’ is a good thing that brooks no argument. We’d be more likely to get statements like the one below that comes from the consultancy mentioned above:
We work with diverse clients and partners to create value through development of innovative solutions to environmental, social and governance challenges.
See what I mean? Or rather what they think they mean, but can’t express it without the comfort of cant.
So let’s get back to basics (another politician’s favourite). Sustain comes from the Latin, sustinere, meaning to hold up. It has both good and bad connotations. For example, you can sustain someone with nourishment or support their spirits. On the other hand, they could sustain an injury.
There isn’t much there to recognise in the modern meaning is there? It’s as if the child ‘sustainability’ has left home and become a grown-up word in its own right. And disowned its parents, ‘sustain’ and ‘sustenance’.