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With 'sustainability' rolling off of frivolous tongues, is the chase to achieve clarity from the vague term becoming a tower of Babble?

When Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan delivered his first “state of the city address” earlier this year, he picked just the right politically correct lingo with which to do it. Inevitably, given the green tinge of the times, he employed the magic word – “sustainable” – in his public pronouncement. Vancouver, he stated, was to become a world leader in environmental practices and sustainable transportation. This was one of his five goals for a better Vancouver.

It was moment of déjà vu; in June 2006, when the embattled Sullivan wanted to pump up his much-touted “EcoDensity” charter (he actually took out a copyright on the term), he described it as, you guessed it, an important “sustainable development” initiative: “Through more sustainable planning, we can reduce the associated costs of housing, ­thereby improving affordability.”

Earlier, in an article in the National Post, the mayor was quoted as saying the time had come for us to embrace density as a tool to make cities more “sustainable” and livable, while at the same time castigating “unsustainable” planning and zoning decisions. Clearly sustainability, or lack of it, is all the rage in these post-Gore days. But it is a vague concept that is susceptible to the widest possible interpretation. Despite this – or because of it – it has become the big buzzword of our eco-saturated era.

Politicians, of course, are not the only ones peppering their public statements with everything sustainable. Professors and journalists (who should know better) do so with equal verbal fervour. But local business people may be the worst offenders, always on the lookout for fine-sounding words and well-worn phrases with which to curry favour with customers and colleagues, even if they know deep down they may be, well, unsustainable in the long run.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, MBA mumbo-jumbo and techno-speak were the gibberish of choice in the boardrooms and on the bulletin boards of B.C.; everyone was chirping on about their “core technology competencies” and their “strategic, Web-based analyses.”

During the current decade, we’ve said goodbye to “innovative, interactive thinking,” “paradigm shifts,” “low-hanging fruit” and even “mission statements,” and hello in the biggest possible way to everything that is “sustainable” – from sustainable developments to sustainable budgets, sustainable partnerships and, of course, sustainable forests.

According to the UN’s Brundtland Commission report, published in 1987, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That may sound impressive, but it is a concept that is also extremely vague – which is likely its chief virtue for academics, bureaucrats and others with reports to write.

After all, who really is in a position to say today what type of development is going to harm folks 100 or 200 years from now, or even 50? And it means that almost any proposed development, from the tallest condo complex to the busiest road or widest bridge, can be considered sustainable if it is presented in the right way, using the right lingo.

Or, conversely, it can be viewed as unsustainable.

“Sustainable” and “unsustainable” are feel-good/feel-bad words. They’re misleading, often deliberately so. And more often than not, they are simply a means of gaining the moral high ground and turning up one’s nose at the opposition.

If you favour the proposed twinning of the Port Mann Bridge, for example, you will insist that the traffic congestion on the bridge and the roads approaching it is “unsustainable” and that the project must proceed. If you oppose the megaproject, you will insist that it is “unsustainable” and that the government must come up with alternative “eco-friendly” methods of transportation.

The fact is that buzzwords, which are intended to impress people with a pretense of knowledge, are based more on the warm and fuzzy emotions they evoke than on any specific meaning they might appear to convey. And these days, “sustainability” is the king of comfortable and cozy. Employed with an almost evangelistic fervour, it’s an essential ingredient of any business speech worth its proverbial salt.

Just ask Lee Scott, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which serves 176 million customers in 14 countries. He must have used it, oh, a zillion times in a keynote (see how easily that buzzword slipped in) lecture he gave in Britain recently to the Prince of Wales’s Business & the Environment Programme.

Scott talked about how Wal-Mart’s British subsidiary Asda Stores Ltd. had the best-quality private-label brand of bathroom tissue, or “loo paper,” as it is called there. “We currently sell about 250 million rolls of it per year,” he stated in his prepared remarks, stressing that it takes a lot of trees to make all those rolls. “So we asked ourselves, what if we manufactured our bathroom tissue out of sustainably harvested wood?”

Well, of course, Asda did. And the rest is history. Eventually, Scott stressed, his company’s goal is to use “only sustainable timber- and pulp-based products to manufacture our brands.” He concluded, “We need to be sustainable companies and countries made up of people who live sustainable lives. If we do that, if we do it throughout the coming decades, I believe that we will make sustainability sustainable.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

Back here in B.C., making sustainability sustainable seems to be the current goal of an overwhelming number of business leaders, politicians, planners and professors. Certainly, it appears to be the impetus behind a laudable initiative to clean up the Tilbury industrial area of Delta – an initiative overseen by the Tilbury Eco-Industrial Partnership, which represents a group of public and private companies, including BC Hydro and Terasen Inc., engaged in something called eco-industrial networking.

And what on God’s green earth is eco-industrial networking? “Inspired by nature, Eco-Industrial Networking involves developing local collaborative business relationships to improve production efficiency, investment, global competitiveness and business performance, while fostering improved community and ecosystem health,” reads the partnership’s public-relations blurb. Incre-dibly, it goes on: “Through collectively managing environmental and energy issues, TEIP members can enhance both their environmental and economic performance, while more effectively using materials, energy, land, infrastructure and human resources.”

Now, on the surface, this string of buzzwords sounds very worthwhile. But it is also more than a little puzzling, not to mention painfully wordy and off-putting. And one is left wondering what exactly is going on, beyond a lot of questionable emissions in the form of hot air from PR flaks.

Certainly, it is easy to be skeptical about the all-too-frequent use of the word “nature” or the prefix “eco” to “green up” a word or phrase – or make-work project – so that it sounds impressive and seems inspirational.

Mercifully, there are skeptics out there. They include people such as SFU business professor Lindsay Meredith, who loves nature but who believes that, in their zeal to embrace the green theme, some businesses are now on a kind of self-reform mission, atoning for the sins of the Enrons and other high-profile corporate baddies and fearful of being burned at the stake. “It’s almost like those sinful corporate devils are repenting their ways; ‘I’ve been to church, I’ve been saved.’” Meredith tells BCBusiness.

But what is it about the environmental movement that has enabled it to catch on so completely in business circles? Well, it’s obvi-ously because there is some justification to it, says Meredith. But more importantly, it makes money. Being green makes green, especially given the government grants and other incentives that go along with it.

However, Meredith warns that those business types whose green lingo is only skin deep are setting themselves up for public criticism in the long run. And they run the risk of being burned by lay critics who, thanks to the Internet, are increasingly plugged in to the latest corporate developments. “Consumers have become a very suspicious, very savvy lot who have way more access to information than they used to have,” Meredith explains.

In other words, simply ramping up one’s banter in eco-buzzwords can backfire. Just ask Nike Inc. and other corporations whose credibility and brand reputation have been badly damaged by charges of hypocrisy over their environmental and “corporate social responsibility” programs.

Jargon and other verbal padding can also be very disquieting for employees, Meredith says, insisting that it has no real place in corporate communications. He suggests companies take a look at the clear, concise type of language that takes place in airport control towers, hospital operating rooms and other places where the cost of miscommunication is incalculable. “Keep corporate commentary very clean, very tight so everybody knows that’s expected,” he recommends.

Finally, Meredith says, jumping on the jargon bandwagon is bad if it causes companies to forget what it is they do well and why they have been successful so far. After all, tomorrow there will invariably be a new trend and, along with it, new jargon. As fellow skeptic Trevor Boddy, a Vancouver architecture critic, says, “It’s inevitable as long as people let it be.”

Boddy actually believes the era of jargon is over, if by jargon we mean the technical and management doublespeak of the 1960s and 1970s, which was often gleaned from military lingo. The new buzzwords, he says, are “softer” and more sinister, more Orwellian and more about doublethink than doublespeak.

What irks Boddy about the current tide of “greenwashing” is that a valid topic such as sustainability is abused through overuse and marketing manipulation until it becomes virtually meaningless. “I think a lot of the media are asleep at the switch on this,” he says.

Or take the term “EcoDensity.” It’s a construct cobbled together for a speech given by Mayor Sullivan at an international urban forum. “That’s all it was; it was a word,” Boddy says. But now it’s on the way to becoming official civic strategy – though, in reality, it is just a compilation of various housing-design ideas that have been kicked around for 30 years or more. In other words, the eco-hype has crippled critical thinking over what Boddy believes is an important issue that deserves more than faddish attention.

Boddy, who writes a column for the Globe and Mail, adds that it is not just profit-making businesses that are prone to catchphrases. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are notorious for “manufacturing calamities at which they throw doublespeak.” And he cautions that, historically, support for environmental activism has risen with economic cycles. “Everyone is green at the peak of the business cycle,” he notes, “and, as difficult as it is for many of us to admit, such ideas are thought to be a luxury when the boom ends.” And when will that be? “We are now at the peak of green blather and perhaps at the edge of a downturn.”

The catchphrase Boddy hates most is anything that has “save the planet” in it: “It’s one of those meaningless add-ons.”

And the fact is, when it comes to saving the planet, the best way to do it may be to start a global campaign to save those on it from being swamped by blather.

We British Columbians may like to think of ourselves as straight-talking, upstanding, down-to-earth types. But when it comes to speaking plainly and precisely, we have a mountain to climb – or an entire range. We prefer, instead, to wallow in the familiar ooze of euphemisms, clichés and buzzwords. We are, in fact, addicted to them.

And like the jargon-aholics we are, we have an unerring tendency to “think outside the box,” “push the envelope,” “level the playing field” and lace our meetings and our memos with “creative, customer-centric approaches” and “sustainable solutions” – ignoring the fact that solutions wouldn’t really be solutions if they weren’t sustainable, and approaches wouldn’t be very creative if they weren’t customer-centric.

Even our best business communicators have trouble avoiding the confusing codswallop, including champions of clarity such as Business Council of B.C. executive VP Jock Finlayson, who has four degrees including an MBA from Yale University.

In a recent interview, Finlayson was quick to reel off a string of overused phrases he said he tries to avoid – from “delivering synergies” to “right-sizing” – only to employ some really ugly jargon of his own by referring to “multi-stakeholder consultation.” Gotcha.

The fact is, this annoying froth just rolls off our tongues as we lecture anyone within range about everything from “driving change” to “moving forward” and “leveraging our human capital” – or leveraging just about anything.

The hot air has become so prevalent and virulent that it has become a form of pollution in its own right, as damaging to our economic and social life as any surge in greenhouse gases.

Finlayson, who points out that formal business training doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on written communication, says the buzzword he absolutely hates is “strategic.” “Everything is ‘strategic’ when, in my view, most decisions are actually tactical.” And the people most likely to serve up this kind of business bombast are, you guessed it, management consultants.

“The worst is the management-consulting industry. Everything is ‘strategic, value-added, accretive to earnings,’” Finlayson says.

Every jurisdiction is said to “have a competitive advantage.” Everybody is said to “drive change.” And we are all “change agents.”

U.S. author Michael Crichton, a Harvard medical graduate and no fan of the current eco-hype, once said of medical writing that it was not inept but was a “highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader.”

Nowadays business people, like business journalists, may find it hard to stop themselves from using overworked and over-inflated words and phrases in their struggle to sound important and remain relevant, not to mention employable. After all, modern society clearly attaches considerable short-term value to buzzword babble, especially of the green variety. And those who use it obviously feel it helps them fit in with the current group mindset and become more part of the team.

However, executives and other so-called professionals who intentionally or unintentionally use specialist jargon, eco-hype and management bombast to try to soft-soap and otherwise confuse their customers or clients are playing an unhealthy, potentially dangerous and ultimately unsustainable game.