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Mind Your Language - Key Terms & Buzzwords

14 February 2014 | Updated 01 January 1970
Do you know the difference between your ‘Green’ and your ‘Eco’? TWinFM’s Environment Partner, Planet First gives us an education on the language, defining key terms & buzzwords.

Often the first hurdle for those trying to introduce a ‘Sustainability Programme’ or ‘Sustainable Initiatives’ into a business or organisation is the terminology. Over the years the key phrases have changed and meanings have morphed. With buzz words such as ‘Green’ and ‘Eco-friendly’ being thrown around with no apparent meaning it is no wonder that people feel intimidated and those listening only hear yet another guilt trip that means nothing to them. The aim of this article is to provide clarity on how to begin talking about sustainability.


Start with ‘Sustainability’

According to the Oxford English dictionary the adjective ‘sustainable’ means ‘able to be maintained at a certain rate or level’ or ‘conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources’. Sustainable businesses therefore must do this through the running of their organisation or resource management. The way for this to happen is through sustainable development.

The most commonly used definition of ‘Sustainable Development’ comes from the Brundtland Commision in 1987 and it says that it is ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.  Despite this definition being 27 years old and very broad, it still serves as a useful guide to outline the intentions of sustainability and sustainable development. It is also a useful concept to keep in mind when your business is making any major decisions – does it comply with the requirements of this definition?  This concise sentence has of course been constructed from a multitude of other research and theory, which perhaps surprisingly does not all come from environmental factors, but also from economics and social factors as well. It is where these three disciplines overlap that changes can be pursued and decisions can be made. For example, where economic and environmental factors overlap, energy efficiency and tax subsidies can come into play, where economic and social factors overlap taxes can be affected, business ethics can be shaped and government funding can be influenced and finally where social and environmental factors overlap environmental law and reporting can be explored. Together all of these major contributors make up what is commonly known as ‘sustainability’.

It is within these overlaps that the term ‘Triple Bottom Line’ comes into play -requiring that a company looks at how it operates in terms of the planet, people and profit and how it can positively affect them.

It is true that this still leaves a huge margin for interpretation, but by combining all three factors along with the definition from the Brundtland Commission, a clearer picture can be formed. It can be useful to think about what your personal definition of sustainability is, is it about avoiding, doing or investing?


The misuse of ‘green’ words

Due to this complex mixture of areas, the words that are used every day to describe elements of sustainability are misused and misallocated. Given proper use and context it seems that these ‘buzzwords’ can be relevant and have meaning. ‘Going green’, ‘Upcycling’, ‘Hypermilling’ and ‘Eco’, along with a copious  number of others are often used by those who would like to talk about sustainability and are enthusiastic but simply do not have the background knowledge to apply them correctly. The result is that whilst these words are simply thrown around, the misuse is easy and continual and they turn into buzzwords.


Do buzzwords highlight knowledge or ignorance?

Most businesses talk money not CO2 and it is important to be mindful of this when presenting a sustainability initiative to your company. Using buzzwords in this situation, when asking for time or money can be risky. Many people will have been told that they are not responsible enough in terms of the environment many times before and repeating the same meaningless words to them will not work.  On the other hand, many businesses search for the new, the fashionable and the innovative. Environmental buzzwords can help to create a hype, bring a sense of the new and incite a feeling of change.  The words ‘Shwopping’ and ‘Swishing’ are prime examples of how buzzwords can bring about success.

Whilst buzzwords are often used as jargon to confuse and conceal, they also do help to quickly shift people’s minds to the area that you are talking about. This may produce negative or positive associations in their mind but it puts you in a position whereby you can immediately dispel any negative preconceptions if you are prepared.

In summary, using buzzword cautiously is fine and can help support your explanation, bid or campaign so long as you are clear what you mean by them. Buzzwords exist not because they have lost meaning but because they are used to excite. The key is to let them impress people but not let them overwhelm you or be used as a shield to hide behind. It is easy to spot someone who uses jargon to cover up the fact that they do not know what they are talking about – don’t let this be you! Ultimately, as long as you are clear what you mean then others will be too.

Article written by Planet First | Published 14 February 2014


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