The term "sustainability" has become so common that it barely reminds us of the challenges it was proposed as a solution for. Illustration: Shutterstock/NTB scanpix

Towards a sustainable term for sustainability

The concept of sustainability has long been incorporated into our collective vocabulary. The word is used in many contexts, including in the PR industry. If we are going to find a way out of the climate and environmental crisis, maybe it should be replaced?

Everyone is talking about sustainability, but no one is talking about what it means.

Before we enter the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in 2021, we need to become more aware of how we use this term. Sustainability has become a buzzword, and when it is applied to everything from university visions to air travel, we risk draining the term of its impact.

The term “sustainability” was launched in the Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future in 1987. The report defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report also presented a threefold understanding of sustainability, divided into economic, social and environmental dimensions.

During the 1995 conference “World Summit on Social Development”, it was emphasized that these three dimensions mutually affected and enforced one another.

The term “sustainability” is often divided into three components. Illustration: Colourbox

This perceived equality between the three dimensions has been subject to criticism. In 2002, Bob Giddings proposed a new model for understanding sustainable development which opposed this equalization. In the Giddings model, the environment is seen as a prerequisite for society, and society is in turn seen as a prerequisite for the economy.

Today, it seems like Giddings’ model has been turned on its head, and that the economy is now seen as a pre-condition for both society and the environment. Karl Ove Moene, professor of economics at the University of Oslo, has stated that we no longer have a comprehensive understanding of the term sustainability. According to Moene, we now talk about the sustainability of isolated components, and as a result “we seemingly discuss important global issues with glorified words which now, realistically, signify nothing more than a need to reduce costs and increase income.”

At the same time, researchers at CICERO, the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, have asked the question as to whether the economic dimension should be removed from the sustainability term altogether, as it largely hinders us in attempts to limit growth and exploitation of resources: “economic growth has been included to make sustainability palatable (…). The transition towards a sustainable society shall be profitable to all and disadvantageous to none.”

Blue opportunities and green rhetoric

In the Norwegian government’s updated ocean strategy “Blå muligheter” (“Blue Opportunities”), the term sustainability is mentioned 95 times in the span of 48 pages. This usage suggests an awareness of the great challenges that currently face us, such as rising ocean levels, plastic pollution, and an enormous loss of marine species.

At the same time, the government has launched large-scale enterprises in ocean-related industries. Both sides of the political spectrum seemingly have ambitions about continued economic gains from the marine realm.

At the 2019 Lerkendal conference, Jonas Gahr Støre stated that the next chapter of Norwegian history will revolve around conquering the ocean. This rhetoric of conquest does not hint towards future ocean politics which will primarily emphasize environmental conservation.

Sustainability has become a buzzword, and when it is applied to everything from university visions to air travel, we risk draining the term of its impact.

Norwegian universities also frequently use the term. It was the main topic of NTNU’s board meeting earlier this January, and our new rector emphasized sustainability as one of the university’s main objectives. In interviews we have conducted, researchers at NTNU nevertheless talk about experiencing the term as worn out and misused. Several of these researchers also mention that it has been damaged by being used as a tool for greenwashing commercial enterprises.

The use of the sustainability term in marketing is also frequent, and often disputable. SAS, among others, now advertises “more sustainable” air travel. Cod that has been flown to China for processing is eco-labelled and marketed as a sustainable product. Though the eco-labelling relates the sustainability of the fish population itself rather than the line of production, this marketing is questionable, and can mislead consumers regarding the environmental impact of the product.

How we talk about the ocean affects how we treat it

These examples, taken from state institutions, politics, and commerce, demonstrate a use of the sustainability term which, in our opinion, exceeds and at times misrepresents its limits.

The ocean is the largest stabilizing component in the Earth’s climate system, but as a consequence of our increasing emissions, the carrying capacity of the ocean is near its limit. As a sea nation, Norway, in line with UN and government strategies, now endeavors to do its part  to restore the ocean’s balance. The way in which we talk about the ocean will be a determining factor in the success of this endeavour.

Every time we use this term, we also risk weakening it.

As a result of the frequent use of the sustainability term we are exposed to it almost everywhere we go. This can be perceived as reassuring; a guarantee for constant awareness of and efforts towards achieving sustainability. However, every time we use this term, we also risk weakening it. When we are overexposed to a term it loses its significance and ability to generate reactions and reflections.

The sustainability term has in our opinion become so commonplace that it barely generates connotations to the challenges it was created to solve. A focus on sustainability in all sections of society is fundamentally positive, but the weight of the term’s significance is diminished each time it is used incorrectly. We must be wary of robbing ourselves of the opportunity to talk about sustainability with the necessary gravitas.

Do we need to replace the term “sustainability” to find a way out of the climate crisis, then? Probably not. Despite its ambiguous nature, the sustainability term has become firmly rooted in our common vocabulary. Although its frequent usage has likely diminished the impact of the term, this usage also asserts its viability during the course of over 30 years.

Perhaps the solution is not to be found in the introduction of a new term, but rather in the way we use the one we already possess. Just as we are all responsible for ensuring “our common future,” we all have a responsibility for properly managing the terms we use in this process. Businesses and institutions should reconsider their use of sustainability as a tool for greenwashing and good PR, and as consumers we should all be more critical towards the intentions that determine the usage of the term. Only by knowing with certainty what we mean when we talk about sustainability can we hope to fulfil the ambitions inherent in the term.