Tag Archives: sustainability

A new language of sustainability


If we are going to begin to change the mindset within organizations, to one where sustainability is embedded in thought and action, it seems to me that we need to begin to consciously choose the language of sustainability. The language that we use shapes our world – so what language are we going to use on our journey?

I was prompted to reflect on this by reading Seventh Generation’s Corporate Consciousness Report, which has been named Best SME report at this year’s CERES/ACCA Sustainability Reporting Awards. Seventh Generation is a US company which makes natural household products.

There are three strands that I would like to pick out from Seventh Generation’s report and the way that they operate that I think underpin a new language of sustainability:

·      Consciousness – being awake to the consequences of the choices that you make and therefore making active choices

·      Global Imperatives – an understanding of your desired impact on the world, infused with the importance of bringing this into being

·      Inspired Protagonists – placing employees as heroes at the centre of the company story


Seventh Generation have a Director of Corporate Consciousness, Gregor Barnum, and a Corporate Consciousness report. Having read an interview with Gregor Barnum, I offer my own explanation of why they use the term Consciousness. The term ‘consciousness’ suggests a state of awakeness and liberation – that you are doing something because you actively, consciously, choose to, and understand the consequences of your actions. The name of the company comes from an Iroquois Indian precept, ‘In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations’.  As Gregor Barnum says “Think about that. Every little thing you did today. Can you think about the consequences of even the tiniest little action – what they would be seven generations from now?” Being present, conscious, to the long term consequences of our actions is an inherent part of sustainability.

Global Imperatives

Seventh Generation have developed a set of ‘Global Imperatives’. They describe these as ‘aspirational imperatives which represent the evolutionary path our company has chosen’. For me, the word imperative is more compelling and has a greater sense of urgency and action than the possible alternative of ‘principle’. These eight imperatives include ‘Systems Perspective: we are committed to approaching everything we do from a systems perspective, a perspective that allows us to see the larger whole, not a fragmented, compartmentalized world, not just our own reality, but a world that is endlessly interconnected, in which everything we do affects everything else’. Taking time to consider the lens that you view the world through is integral to consciousness.

Inspired Protagonists

People who work at Seventh Generation are known as Inspired Protagonists. If you want employees to be part of the story, to be creating the story, then they need to be able to see themselves as heroes in the story, empowered to act, not just cogs in a machine.

A friend was saying to me yesterday how he passed by Dr Johnson’s house in London, and thought how cool it would be able to write your own dictionary. Is this actually part of the task in front of us – to create a new world, do we need to start defining a new language too?

What’s your definition of sustainability?


A good place to start when talking about sustainability is to define it. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to people in your organisation? Too often, sustainability is used as a shorthand, without consideration for what it actually stands for.

The most widely used definition of sustainable development is the one coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission):

“forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

This is a good starting point. But for me it lacks the ‘wow’ factor, it sounds like it was written by committee. It is not going to inspire. Whereas the definition for sustainability from Forum for the Future is definitely more inspirational:

“A dynamic process which enables all people to realise their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways that simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life support systems.”

I like this definition because it makes explicit the fact that we are dependent on the earth, so we better look after it, whilst making the link to all people realising their potential – we (collectively) will have a better life if we (collectively) take care of the environment. There is an aspirational element rather than just ‘we should do this because we must’.

I had a go at writing my own definition, and this is what I arrived at:

“Sustainability is a balance between the financial, human, and environmental. It is about living your values and acting with integrity, responsibility and generosity. It is about being in a community of discussion, dialogue and action – because no person or company is an island and everything is interconnected.”

Ultimately, the definition of sustainability in your organisation needs to reflect the values of your organisation and your culture. But if we want to place sustainability centre stage in companies, then why not open up the debate to employees? Ask what it means to them, ask them what their vision of a sustainable future is. By engaging with employees on a level of personal values and having this conversation, this will begin to create a platform for organisations to shift to a mindset of sustainability that is truly embedded in the organisation.

What’s your definition of sustainability? Share it here.