Those who know me and my work know that I advocate for avoiding the use of certain words – mainly “sustainability.” “Paradigm” is another word that should be avoided – nay, BANISHED – but that is a different matter. Anyway, it is my experience that “sustainability” has baggage that stems from past misguided, erroneous and overzealous attempts by sustainability professionals at making a business case for these initiatives. I am one of these folks I criticize here. 

With executive negative preconceptions of “sustainability,” a hidden uphill battle exists in getting management, executives and Board members on-board when using that terminology. We need to appreciate what resonates with our key audience (executives who approve programs/funding) rather than continuing to talk in our (sustainability professionals’) own language. That in itself shows a lack of integration of sustainability into “the business” by creating an artificial barrier. The goal should be real success, not philosophical wins.

So of course I was happy to read this piece in Fortune about Patagonia specifically choosing to avoid using the word “sustainable.” Their reasoning is different from mine – but it is thoroughly fascinating, refreshing and authentic. It could even become a model for other companies. Here’s why:

Patagonia avoids the word “sustainable” because, according to the article, “we aren’t entirely sure how to do this.” They openly acknowledge the difficulties they face in both in their own operations (such as increasing recycled content of their products) and in their supply chain (where they say “we are a minor player on this stage”). To tackle these challenges, they turn to their core values – “innovating and finding solutions from which we, and other businesses, can benefit.”

In my opinion, similar to the Ace & Tate announcement I blogged about not long ago, this authenticity is more likely to help stakeholders understand the company’s ESG goals and progress. It shows that leaders are really thinking hard about challenges and linking ESG to strategy and corporate values. Even more – this approach doesn’t cost a penny.

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