The battle to spawn new names for sustainability is becoming unsustainable, says Peter Knight

Ever since Gro Harlem Brundtland invented the notion of sustainable development, a coterie of commentators have spent their waking moments trying to devise something sexier that would be more easily understood by the masses: less frightening, more positive. A term that brings hope, rather than the fry-and-die threats of the hair-shirts.

Since Context’s founding 16 years ago, we have published a free glossary of corporate sustainability terms, and we have had to run fast to keep up with the new names trying to jostle their way into the sustainability lexicon. Two terms currently stand out: “conscious capitalism” and the “circular economy”.

Conscious capitalism is firmly rooted in the United States and the circular economy is very much a European creation. Both are brave attempts to make sustainability better understood. Both terms are doomed by their semantic silliness.

We can thank John Mackey, the combative vegan libertarian behind the Whole Foods empire, for putting conscious capitalism on the map by publishing a book by that name. The global high-street fashion chain H&M has also adopted the term and recently launched its Conscious Collection with the help of Vanessa Paradis – the French singer and former wife of Johnny Depp.

The problem with conscious capitalism is its blatant misuse of “conscious” to mean “conscience”. It reminds me of those European T-shirts with random slogans devised by non-English speaking designers more interested in typographical shape than meaning. Hiphop Smash Mother!

“Capitalism with a conscience” is how John Mackey’s English teacher would have corrected his slogan, but in so doing the alliterative rhythm of the double C would have been sacrificed. Mackey is a consummate marketer and would not have stood for such dreary correctness.

Conscious capitalism has its own website and describes itself as a movement. It has also, in good capitalistic spirit, registered the term to protect its intellectual property. Academic rigour is provided by a Darden School of Business professor, Ed Freeman, but its intellectual roots are firmly in the work of Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism.

Misuse of conscious makes much better sense for a fashion house, given the common terms of “body conscious” and “fashion conscious”. Taken as an evocative word on a fashion website or a T-shirt it sort of makes sense. Unlike those behind conscious capitalism, H&M is not making any intellectual claims or pretending to devise something new. On the contrary, its sustainability efforts are straight from the text book of incremental improvement – and all power to H&M.

Unlikely to last

There are two reasons the term conscious capitalism will fall out of use: competition from other phrases and Mackey’s character.

It is unlikely that major chief executives will buy into conscious capitalism. The very few who are conscious about corporate sustainability are in thrall to Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter’s rather shallow reworking of sustainability into “shared value” – and it is providing hot competition.

The second problem is Mackey’s penchant for making headlines for the wrong reasons. I appreciate and celebrate his maverick and politically incorrect ways, but his PRs will probably die young. When he launched his book he called Barack Obama a fascist because of the US president’s health reforms. This did not go down well, especially with all the kale-eating liberals who provide the profits for his store, which is commonly referred to as Whole Paychecks.

After the 28-year-old Ellen MacArthur broke the record for a solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005, she set up an eponymous foundation to promote a sustainable economy. She commissioned the big brains at McKinsey & Co to produce the thinking behind a concept MacArthur called the “circular economy”.

This is, essentially, another name for the cradle-to-cradle idea originally coined 25 years ago by Swiss architect Walter H Stahel (an Ellen MacArthur Foundation adviser) and builds on the subsequent work of the European commission.

Unlike the supremely irritating phrase conscious capitalism, circular economy – as a term – is plain boring. One can understand why the foundation liked it: it reflects the founder’s efforts circling the world and neatly summarises the idea of a closed-loop or regenerative economy. But unfortunately it also conjures up an image of “going around in circles”. The circular economy is hardly known in Europe and entirely unknown in the US. A pity, because MacArthur is genuinely committed to her crusade.

It’s tough finding inspiring alternatives to “sustainability”. Here’s a prediction: in a few years’ time the only place you’ll see conscious capitalism and the circular economy is on T-shirts.

Peter Knight is chairman of Context.

communications  CR Strategy  Peter Knight  sustainability 

comments powered by Disqus