The Meaning of Sustainability as Perceived by Mainstream Consumers is Wrong

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The Meaning of Sustainability as Perceived by Mainstream Consumers is Wrong
Ismael Bena - MBA, Management Consultant, Netherlands

A pending study reveals that the meaning of the word “Sustainability” is perceived differently by mainstream consumers compared to experts and practitioners.
As argued by Fitzgerald (2014), "… the words they [mainstream US consumers] chose are environmental words such as "environmentally friendly", "natural", "organic," "green", "recycle" and "renewable" as most similar to "sustainability". The key characteristics of sustainability, i.e.: ethical, trust, collaboration, community, etc., had a lower ranking in their perceived relationship to sustainability, unlike the meaning which professionals assign to it
I think we would agree here that sustainability is far more than that, something like ‘an activity, which can be continued indefinitely - without exhausting resources or destroying its own basis’.

How can we as its advocates improve the communication of its definition to the masses? Is better "marketing" needed to get the full meaning of sustainability across? Who could take care of that? Or do we need a new term? Or are we placing too much emphasis on the “S” term and should we encourage the spirit of the thought?

When professionals continue debating and neglect to take a coordinated action towards proper understanding, we might risk the hijacking of the “S” definition, potentially loosing momentum shifting this paradigm.

Kho, J., Guardian Sustainable Business, 3rd of February 2014, Open thread: What does ‘sustainable’ mean to you?
DuFault, A., Kho, J., Guardian Sustainable Business, 18th of October 2013, Sustainability: Is it a dirty word?

Sustainability, CSR, CSV and Counting
Love Lonnroth, Management Consultant, Sweden
Could it be that sustainability professionals and academics are simply to fond of coming up with new words for similar things? Sustainability, "Green", social enterprise, etc. have been massively promoted for quite some time and there is a myopia of words describing similar phenomena. Professionals come from different traditions like marketing, the quality movement, economics and NGO’s with a different understanding of "Sustainability".
That consumers perceive sustainability to mean "Green" is simply an effect of the massive promotion of the climate crisis and other environmental issues in news media. For other issues to become top of mind within the category of sustainability will take a massive marketing effort. Some companies I work with solve this by employing the term CSR as a synonym for "social responsibility" excluding the Green issues.

Deep Dive in CSR Ranking
Ismael Bena - MBA, Management Consultant, Netherlands
@Love Lonnroth, I concur that academics are far too keen to coin new words for the same phenomena... Selling old wine in new bottles. This behavior, I believe, frustrates society (and the business community) by continuously adding new labels to CSR, although not differing in the basic - being an activity, which can be continued indefinitely without exhausting resources or destroying its own basis’ - hence placing great consideration on society and nature during your operations.
Probably a dedicated marketing campaign for CSR as main topic would help to improve the psychological public ranking, which in turn needs to be maintained in communication by professionals and academics.



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Ismael Bena - MBA
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