What words are we using to talk about doing better for people & planet?
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
"In a sense, words are encyclopaedias of ignorance because they freeze perceptions at one moment in history and then insist we continue to use these frozen perceptions when we should be doing better." —Dr. Edward de Bono
Dr De Bono , a physician and philosopher from Malta who is famous for coining the term lateral thinking, and for creativity exercises, including the six hats, says the above about how we for the most part view words. I’m not a linguist, however, I appreciate the power of words and that different words can have different effects on us when we receive them. Thanks to postgraduate study and, in particular, my tutor Dr Jamie Brassett I now have a curiosity about the root of words and how their significance, associations and meanings change over time. This evolution relates to what Dr De Bono says. It is a useful exercise to pause from time to time to check in about what particular words mean to us, what we associate with them and their significance to us and to others. Consider this a check in about the words we use when talking about doing better for people and planet.
Lately, reading about and attending conferences, events and webinars about ‘sustainability’ in fashion and textiles, I’ve heard doubts spread about the word ‘sustainability’. My initial thought was that the word is fine, but then on reflection I started to feel that the essence of sustainability - that is ‘to sustain’ - might be out of place in our current context. Surely, it is too late to ‘sustain’ the planet at this point, this doesn’t feel enough of an action - there are no alarm bells ringing. I’m reminded of the shift from climate change to climate crisis, when climate change was seen as too passive a phrase for the current context, this has of course also been extended to ‘climate emergency’ as well. I feel sustainability just doesn’t have the gravitas needed in 2021.
What do others feel about the words in current use about doing better for people and planet? I took a poll on LinkedIn in April 2021 and selected three common words used in this space:
The poll asked: What language do you most prefer when talking about doing better for people and planet? Twenty-four people voted and the results can be seen in Fig.1.
Fig 1. LinkedIn Poll
The word ‘Sustainability’ was the favourite with half the votes, followed by ‘Eco-’, ‘Regeneration’ and then voters own words or phrases. Now I will dig a little deeper into each of these words.
Firstly: Sustainability or the ‘s’ word as Prof. Shelia-Mary Carruthers calls it. Sustainability is a noun: so, a person, place, thing or idea. The ‘ity’ element equates to ‘condition or quality of being’ of the related adjective, in this case sustainable. So, sustainability has the quality or condition of being sustainable. The etymology of ‘sustainable’ from 1610 being ‘bearable’ and from 1965 meaning: ‘capable of being continued at a certain level.’ I guess the question then is: what is the level?
Charles V.Kidd working for the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote a paper in 1992 called the “Evolution of Sustainability” in the article Kidd proposes that sustainability has its roots in six different ‘trains of thought’ or philosophies, all of which emerged in the 1950’s and which have varying viewpoints about the future of humans. I’ve illustrated these six philosophies as the roots of a tree in Fig. 2. They are:
· Ecological/carrying capacity
· Critique of technology
· No growth/slow growth
Fig 2. Authors own illustration of the roots of the Sustainability
as proposed by Charles V.Kidd in 1992 paper “Evolution of Sustainability”
Kidd then goes on to talk about how the term ‘sustain’ was first used in connection with doing better for people and planet in a 1972 special edition of The Ecologist magazine. Editors Goldsmith, Allen, Allaby, Davoll & Lawrence put together “Blueprint for Survival”, see Fig. 2, which later went on to be published as a book, and can still be accessed online today. The theme of ‘sustain’ is introduced in the first paragraph of the introduction: “The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable.“ The word ‘sustain’ or variant of (sustainable, sustained) is used a total of fourteen times in these forty-three pages.
Fig. 3 Image of cover of 1972 special edition of the Ecologist
called ‘Blueprint for Survival’
Kidd notes that the way this concept of ‘sustainability’ emerged in Blueprint for Survival, which used emotive and sensational language as a call to action, rather than a peer reviewed academic paper is one of the reasons different concepts of sustainability have evolved.
“The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable.“
Other key moments in the evolution of our use of ‘sustainability’ include the United Nations (UN) 1987 report : Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, often referred to as the Brundtland Report after Gro Harlem Brundtland, a Norwegian politician who chaired the commission. In this report the concept of sustaining is interlinked with development and conflates with intergenerational equity: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This idea was echoed in a 1994 report for the World Bank by Prof. GB Asheim, and has been reverberated in conferences, papers and reports since.
Sustainability evolved from the roots of ecological and environmental concerns and movements in the 1950’s, it’s first conflation with doing better for people and planet, was in the context that the current (1972) ways of being were not sustainable. It is therefore no wonder the term is being questioned today, if it’s about what we are not, rather than what we should be. Moving onto eco-now as a short version of ecology, which began its story before sustainability did.
Eco as short for ecology. Again, a noun, so person, place, thing or idea. From 1873 oecology ‘branch of science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environments’. A word coined by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel as Ökologie, from Greek oikos: ‘house, dwelling place, habitation’ (also from PIE root *weik "clan") and logia meaning "study of”. The connection to oikos, as in dwelling, makes me think of home, and I like the association of the word ecology with an idea of dwelling or our home. If we think about it, that is one of our common denominators, we all call planet earth our home. Ecology also has this meaning of relationships between living things, but why stop at ‘living’ why not include all ‘things’ in our common home.
From the 1960’s Ecology has been associated with environmental activism, and as we have seen was one of the roots for sustainability. It is also interested to note that ‘eco-‘ is the prefix for economic. In the 1530’s ‘economic’ was used to describe household management. It has its roots in the Greek words ‘oikonomos’ which pertains to manager or steward, and as ecology: ‘oikos’ pertaining to dwelling. It is surprising to see these common ideas of household/home and stewardship for both ecology and economy are more closely linked that our contemporary 2021 use of these words. For economy the association with wealth and resources stems from the 1650’s and has been shortened from political economy. 
“In its most simple sense I would say that regeneration is what needs to happen now…”
So, what about our third option: regeneration? Again, a noun, so person, place, thing or idea. According to etymology online: “A being born again, from 14th Century
Latin.” Originally used in a spiritual context and then about forests from 19th Century. This term has been gaining in popularity over the last few years when discussing doing better for people and planet. Going hand in hand with the viewpoint that to sustain is not enough we need to restore, rebuild, regenerate the earth. Hannah Lyons-Tsai a systems innovator who took part in the LinkedIn poll and helps explain why she chose the word Regeneration.
“In its most simple sense I would say that regeneration is what needs to happen now for us to have a chance to sustain life, it is very much about putting energy into rebuilding ecosystems and working with nature as if we were part of it (which we are!)... Recognising that resources are finite and also everything is cyclical…being regenerative also requires a culture shift as it will involve operating from a place of strongly held values and less fixed, hierarchical ways. I note that sustainability is the most widely used phrase in this sphere however it has been overused without clear definition of what it is and what it isn't, these leads to many organisations assuming that they can make just a few tweaks here and there whilst never really addressing the fact that the very nature of where they put their energy doesn't work.”
Regeneration, is currently most commonly associated with regenerative agriculture, where ancient farming practices are being revived to consider a more systemic approach to growing crops. So perhaps the word and concept itself are not so new, but the use of it in this space and as a more general concept is new in Global North societies. A good example of regenerative agriculture is the work of Patagonia who have expanded from clothing into food as part of their initiatives. Although regeneration scored the least of the three given terms, it is growing in popularity and does have more of an action association than sustainability or eco.
“If the planet is well, so are the humans”
Of interest are the other words or phrases that people prefer when talking about doing better for people and planet, in the poll, we heard of two. Firstly ‘planet wellbeing’ from Prof. Sheila-Mary Carruthers, a Professor at Heriot-Watt University who taught me then I studied there, and textile industry consultant for over 50 years, Sheila-Mary explains that she prefers this language simply because “if the planet is well, so are the humans”. This highlights the key connection of people and planet, which are so often disconnected, whereas actually we are all part of the same system; the same home which is planet earth.
Another phrase that was shared anonymously is to use the language ‘reduced impact’. The author of this phrase explains:
“I believe the term "reduced impact" is a better way to communicate environmental efforts. Stating that there is a reduced impact requires that the company knows a baseline where they have started from and have achieved a measurable reduction of resources. Sustainability is too general of a term and doesn't mean much; there is no single definition of sustainability and is often confusing for the companies themselves to define, let alone the customer. Does a recycled polyester tee that may end up in a landfill for 1000 years still qualify as sustainable? “
This gives a much more practical and action orientated viewpoint, which is inspiring in that it addresses the important of issue of where do you start? What are you trying to achieve? it is a much more tangible way of looking at doing better for people and planet.
Overall, the word ‘Sustainability’ seems to be the preferred language when talking about doing better for people and planet in the Global North. However, I wonder, going back to Dr De Bono’s quote, if this word is indeed the most suitable for our current situation. As Dr De Bono suggest, can’t we do better? The word Sustainability has only emerged as a mainstream word in the Global North in recent history (1970’s) however, it is important to acknowledge that many people living on planet earth have been using sustainable practices for centuries.
Perhaps if we were to adopt language from First Nations/Indigenous peoples that also relates to some of the etymology explored here, such as home, stewardship, honour, clan and family, this would help shift our relationship with our home, planet earth and with each other. Using words filled with more care, respect and value could certainly help shift our relationships and then our behaviour.
For me, I feel it’s time to move away from the language of ‘sustain-ability’ to something that is more about living in harmony with planet earth, perhaps eco-conscious, planet conscious, or more restorative such as regeneration, planet restoration. Whatever word or phrase you choose, it’s important to check in with those you are communicating with to see if what you each understand and associate with that word.
"Imagine a time when we won’t need words like sustainability, eco, regeneration, planet wellbeing & reduced impact..."
Imagine a time when we won’t need words like sustainability, eco, regeneration, planet wellbeing & reduced impact, because we will all (human and beyond-human) live in harmony as part of our home planet earth. We will not take from our earth system more than we need, and we will ensure a flourishing planet for all beings, each other and future generations. Once the need for these words and phrases is redundant, that will be the mark of significant progress, and a dream worth pursuing!
 Dr De Bono website: https://www.edwddebono.com/  Dr Brassett is a Reader at Central Saint Martins, London https://www.arts.ac.uk/colleges/central-saint-martins/people/dr-jamie-brassett  Prof. Sheila-Mary Carruthers is a Honorary Professor of School of Textiles & Design Heriot-Watt University & partner at Carruthers Associates https://www.carruthers-associates.com/team  Etymology online “sustainable” accesses 1 June 2021 https://www.etymonline.com/word/sustainable?ref=etymonline_crossreference  Ibid  Kidd, C.V., 1992. The evolution of sustainability. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 5(1), pp.1-26. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01965413  Access Blueprint for Survival here: https://www.resurgence.org/magazine/ecologist/issues1970-1979.html  UN 1987 report Our Common Future here: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf Etymology Online “ecology” accessed 1 June 2021 https://www.etymonline.com/word/ecology  Ibid  Etymology Online “economic” accessed 1 June 2021 https://www.etymonline.com/word/economics  Ibid  Ibid  Etymology Online “regeneration” accessed 1 June 2021 https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=regeneration  Ibid  Connect with Hannah here: https://www.hannahlyons-tsai.co.uk/  Read more about Patagonia’s regenerative agriculture initiatives here: https://eu.patagonia.com/gb/en/actionworks/campaigns/regenerative-organic-agriculture-2/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwnueFBhChARIsAPu3YkQ_2xODJ4blngVhWiJ55T_dN79LaGlM9gUPsLLrHJBiKxdqz2kDcXIaAlnCEALw_wcB  Listen to more of Sheila-Mary’s views Tom Ward-Thomas podcast Planet & The people, episode “Fashion for the planet” 5 May 2021.  Thank you to Kath Simpson and Nishita Dewan who shared a wonderful article about adopting the pronouns ki or kin along a similar vein access here: https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/03/30/alternative-grammar-a-new-language-of-kinship
cover image: Brett Jordon, https://unsplash.com/