Sustainability. It’s a word that either excites, confuses or infuriates business professionals. Does it refer to delivering a healthy, profitable business or does it describe a way of growing a profitable business by being socially and environmentally responsible?
Most readers of this site will probably agree with the latter definition but, given this continuing and evolving debate on the semantics of sustainability, how can we expect to communicate such an important business philosophy to a larger audience?
It’s a question that has repeatedly cropped up while researching and writing the annual SMI-Wizness Social Media Sustainability Index. Social media has already demolished the traditional structures of corporate communication and marketing, putting the customer at the heart of discussions about a brand or business, whether it be marketing campaigns, customer service, investor relations or PR outreach.
And in the past few years social media has made a mockery of the notion that sustainability and corporate social responsibility is only of interest to specific company stakeholders. Over the past 12 months numerous companies including Time-Warner, Sony, Danone, Unilever and Patagonia have created sustainability communication and collaboration projects using social media that appeal to customers, employees, shareholders and even suppliers alike.
However, even as CSR commitments and communications grow so does the concern that the term sustainability may not be fit for purpose in a social media world. Already some sustainability professionals are looking to banish the S-word when it comes to communicating with the public. The fear is that such a bookish term fails to convey the importance of what sustainability means for everyone impacted by business. As Caroline Digby, sustainability director at the Eden Project explained at a recent GSB employee engagement workshop: “We hardly use the S-word because we want to attract and talk to people who don’t deal with that term.”
Nike is another company questioning sustainability semantics, albeit with its trademark promotional panache. Its Nike Makers campaign, created to accompany the Nike Materials Sustainability Index, includes a slick YouTube video openly criticising the corporate-speak language of sustainability. “Make no mistake,” it says. “We hate sustainability.” Instead, the video says: “We’re here to unveil a new age of design, one that is about making better things and making things better.” Should sustainability professionals be concerned that such an aspirational term, and one still in its infancy in terms of business integration, should already be under attack? And do customers or employees even need to understand what it means? Perhaps not, if the lessons of the social media economy are any indication.
Social media as a term grew out of the need to explain the power of blogging, podcasting and social networking. But it didn’t take long for communication professionals and change management experts to argue that term wasn’t fit for purpose. Indeed, even as the power of social media took hold within companies and resonated with the public a new term, social business, came into vogue. That in turn has caused confusion with sustainability and CSR professionals who already thought they were advocating a social business.
Now as we head into 2013 we can be sure that, as the philosophy and practice of social media becomes embedded into every part of a company’s operations, the very term social media will probably wane. It will be part of the mainstream; soon we won’t need a standalone term to describe it, but social media’s essential elements – transparency, collaboration, community and accountability – will continue to shape companies’ evolving relationship with customers and community.
Ultimately, it is also the path sustainability will take within companies as the philosophy of building a stronger, profitable business by being socially and environmentally responsible is adopted by the mainstream. We shouldn’t get too hung up on explaining the term sustainability. Rather, let’s understand and identify the philosophy of what the term represents in creating better businesses.
So when companies practice and then communicate that philosophy to all their connected communities they never actually have to mention the confusing S-word.