Rebranding Sustainability

Colin Beavan has an interesting commentary over at WorldChanging on the increasing irrelevance of the word ‘sustainable’ to the environmental movement.  It doesn’t have enough of a sense of urgency, he says.  Also, we shouldn’t just push for things that can be made and re-made — we should champion the things that actually make life better.  He thinks the new standard should be called ‘Ecological Effectiveness’ and poses the following rough definition:

E = life enhancement / ecological resource use.

I’m less interested in Colin’s solution than the problem he identifies.  Words like “sustainable” and “green” are indeed ubiquitous monikers for environmental awareness — brands that come with their own visual languages and experience expectations.  They’ve grown over time in a decentralized way, which means they loosely describe a diverse category of people, attitudes, and actions–they mean many different things to many different people, and as such, they increasingly mean nothing.  They are what I call ‘meta-brands’, a concept I plan to elaborate on frequently in this blog.

Part of Colin’s frustration is rooted in the fact that meta-brands are by definition uncontrollable.  Unlike AT&T and Cingular, we won’t be able to phase them out over a 6-month period.  Whether or not they serve our needs is entirely dependent on where we sit in the system.

Another piece of the frustraton is the externalization that these words both engender and demand.  ‘Sustainable’ and ‘green’ imply alternative ways of doing established things–and as such are stuck in the world of options, not imperatives.  The are further tied to ‘The Environment’, which has been discursively constructed as some separate other-world of rainforests and polar bears instead of an intimate awareness of the rocks, trees, and air around us every day.

The paradox here is that you HAVE TO separate a concept from everyday life in order to talk about it and promote it.  Colin’s ‘environmental effectiveness’ is essentially saying ‘we should do stuff better’, which doesn’t mean a lot to anyone.

The challenge to rebranding sustainability lies in separating and addressing the roots of the problem within the mindsets of individuals, not external objects.  When we can figure that out, we’ll be a lot closer to selling the world on a better way to live.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

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thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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