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  • Writer's pictureJohn Pabon

Defining What We're Fighting For

I often joke that if you ask a room of ten experts to define sustainability, you're likely to get thirty different answers. But, if we're all trying to fight the same fight then shouldn't we all be on the same page...especially when it comes to what we're talking about? How can we convince anyone to join us if we can't even agree on the basics ourselves?

What follows are some of the most widely used terms in the fight to save the world. They're also terms people often misunderstand. A common understanding is only going to fast track our work. So, before we even start to attack saving the planet, we better get straight on what it is we’re all supposed to be talking about.


"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
-UN World Commission on Environment and Development

Out of everything we’ll talk about, sustainability seems to be the most confusing term. That’s probably because it serves as an umbrella term for many of the topic areas in the cause-centric world. It’s multifaceted and prone to different definitions. Even in my day-to-day, I use the word sustainability interchangeably with several other terms. It’s a great catch-all, but that can lead to confusion.

To get over that confusion, let’s break the term down into its individual parts. Traditionally, sustainability consists of three distinct pillars: environment; society; and, economy. Some people toss in culture as another pillar, which is fine. Because each pillar is so broad, it can consist of any number of issues. Environment can include ecology, water stewardship, air pollution, environmentalism, and on and on. The societal pillar is chiefly concerned with human rights, but also corporate responsibility and community affairs. Economy deals with matters like the private sector, supply chains, and sustainable finance. Just understand that everything related to saving the world sits under the term sustainability.

Depending on where you live, your understanding of the field, and your line of work, sustainability may have a very specific context. In China, which in many respects is just starting on its national sustainability journey, the word is most often referenced to mean corporate responsibility. For countries of the European Union, sustainability has to do with regulation and governance. Left-leaning places like Melbourne or San Francisco would use sustainability interchangeably with environmentalism. Confusing? I know. Yet all of these would be correct.

Now the aim of this exercise isn’t to make things more confusing for you. It’s to show the need to qualify what you’re saying when you talk to people. As a general life rule, this is probably a good thing to remember. In the sustainability world, being clear with your words ensures you’re collaborating with the right people in the right way.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

"Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable — to itself, its stakeholders, and the public. By practicing corporate social responsibility, also called corporate citizenship, companies can be conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society including economic, social, and environmental. To engage in CSR means that, in the normal course of business, a company is operating in ways that enhance society and the environment, instead of contributing negatively to them."

When you hear CSR, what do you think of? If you’re like most people, it’s either charity work or a long, boring corporate report. CSR is probably the most widely used term within the field of sustainability but is also the one most coopted and misused. As we’ll see, corporations have taken this term and had their way with it. They’ve twisted and beaten it into submission. Instead of being a term for good, it’s now all too often a term used to position an irresponsible corporation as a responsible one. But, more on that later.

When a corporation is socially responsible, they will contribute positively to the building of a sustainable world. That might take the form of a socially conscious business model, like the café that donates all its proceeds to the homeless. For larger corporations, it might mean having a strong environmental mandate, refined labor practices, or a culture of volunteerism. All of this is typically measured in those lengthy, dull corporate responsibility reports. That’s because a modern corporation cannot exist without at least claiming to be responsible. CSR programs have become a critical ingredient to modern business success.

At this stage in the game, any company without some sort of CSR program is dead in the water. Most companies have something in place. Because everyone is now claiming to be socially responsible, they’ve managed to dilute the term. What’s the phrase? A rotten apple spoils the whole bunch? In the world of CSR, this couldn’t be truer. CSR is meant to be a means of keeping companies accountable for their actions, whether good or bad. Now, CSR has become a label to try and gloss over the negative impact a company might have on the world. It’s often used as much for accountability as it is for window dressing.

Because it has become such a loaded term, I tend to stay away from using CSR. If I do, it’s usually related to what I’d term the early stages of sustainability: charity; philanthropy; and, community engagement. It no longer relates to the more strategic sustainability work of board governance, supply chains and logistics, or human rights. Some, though, will still equate CSR with sustainability. I guess you could swap these two pretty easily, as long as you’re clear about what you mean. Again, definitions matter.


"1. a theory that views environment rather than heredity as the important factor in the development and especially the cultural and intellectual development of an individual or group
2. advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment especially: the movement to control pollution"
-Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I think we all have some idea of what environmentalism means. Some people study this in university, risk their lives high in the trees of the Amazon, and painstakingly categorize seeds in the frozen Scandinavian north. The environmentalists have been the vanguard in the battle to save the world. They are the greenies, the eco-warriors, and the Prius-driving neighbor all doing their part.

Let’s be clear, though. Environmentalism isn’t the only aspect of sustainability. It sits under the umbrella of sustainability but is not the umbrella itself. Some people confuse this. There is so much more to saving the world than just hugging the trees. While the environmentalists may be the loudest bunch, they certainly aren’t the only ones putting in the work.


"ESG means using Environmental, Social and Governance factors to evaluate companies and countries on how far advanced they are with sustainability. Once enough data has been acquired on these three metrics, they can be integrated into the investment process when deciding what equities or bonds to buy."

The acronym ESG is most often associated with the private sector and is a close cousin to CSR. Both are ways of benchmarking and evaluating corporate performance relative to building a sustainable future. ESG, though, is quite specific. In it, we’re looking at environmental, social, and governance metrics.

The environmental aspects of ESG have to do with the negative or positive impact a company has on the Earth. This could be through its air or water emissions if it’s a factory, green building record if it’s an architecture firm, or carbon offsets if it’s an executive jet-setting around the world.

Social aspects of ESG relate to the way a company treats its workers and stakeholders in the local community. Are all labor rights and employment protections in place? Do workers receive training or education, and are they offered opportunities to grow? Is the company a good corporate citizen and do they act responsibly towards their local communities? Do they support the local economy or, like Walmart and Starbucks, aim to put mom-and-pop shops out of business?

Lastly, governance involves how a business monitors itself. Good governance models allow for transparency and the full disclosure of information. Even better models tie executive and board remuneration to ESG KPIs. This term has nothing to do with politics unless you’re talking about the frustrating internal politics of an organization.

You’ll see ESG indicators in corporate responsibility reports, materiality analyses, and financial statements. Investors especially love ESG as a way to value companies they may or may not invest in. Major multinational organizations use it as a key factor in deciding which factories and suppliers to work with since supplier audits generally include this information. If you’re a factory in Dhaka and you get a bad ESG audit, good luck getting any company in the United States or Europe to work with you. That’s why this little acronym is so important to the field of sustainability.

Carrying Capacity

"Carrying capacity refers to the number of individuals who can be supported in a given area within natural resource limits, and without degrading the natural social, cultural and economic environment for present and future generations."

Everything, including the Earth, has its limits. Carrying capacity is the measure of what these limits are. Intelligent humans will try and live within these means. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re not the brightest species.

Sustainable Development Goals

"The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030."
-The United Nations Development Programme

Many of you might remember the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These targets were meant to solve a slew of humanity’s problems by the year 2015. Well, the year came and went but the problems remain. That’s why the UN came up with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to replace the MDGs. If the authors are to be believed, these new goal sets are now more streamlined and easier to understand. They also bring together the public and private sectors towards realizing these targets.

The 17 SDGs cover everything from the environment to poverty, food security to collaboration. They are broken down into fairly easy-to-understand metrics, which many organizations have taken to heart. Most major corporations now use the SDGs as their roadmap for a sustainable future, and for how they lay out ESG targets. With about ten years to go until the 2030 deadline for the SDGs, it’s going to take a laser focus and strong will to make sure we all succeed.

Two Degrees Celsius

You’ll often hear scientists and politicians talk about the two-degree threshold. For many, this is the point of no return. If humanity increases the global average temperature by more than this, we’re certain to face calamity and a permanent change to our way of life. We’ll enter a tipping point which we won’t be able to reverse. Keeping things to an optimal 1.5-degree increase will still see long-term negative impacts on the environment but to a manageable degree. This was the aim at Paris in 2015, codified into the Agreement signed by all but two nations.

International Protocols

There are a few important international meetings you have to remember when you’re talking about sustainability as well. A quick breakdown should help make sense of things.

Montreal (1987). The Montreal Protocol, which is still in effect today, was the signature agreement to combat the growing hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. Montreal put restrictions on aerosol products (like your favorite hairspray) and other man-made airborne contaminants.

Rio (1992). This meeting established the United Nations Framework Convention (UNFCCC) on Climate Change. The UNFCCC is tasked with keeping all nations on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate humanity’s negative impact on the climate.

Kyoto (1998). Pushed mostly by President Clinton, the Kyoto Protocol was the embryo of an international emission trading scheme. Unfortunately, the Protocol never got traction with the US or other developed nations.

Copenhagen (2009). This was supposed to be a historical highlight for the UN but ended up as one of its biggest diplomatic blunders. Delegates were meant to pass a protocol that set out a strategy for the UNFCCC but squabbling between developed and developing nations meant very little actually happened. This led to the need for the 2015 meeting in Paris.

Paris (2015). The most well-known of the UN climate protocols, the Paris Agreement was a hard-fought win for environmentalists the world over. From the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:

"…the agreement represents a hybrid of the ‘top-down’ Kyoto approach and the ‘bottom-up’ approach of the Copenhagen and Cancun agreements. It establishes common binding procedural commitments for all countries, but leaves it to each to decide its nonbinding ‘nationally determined contribution’ (NDC). The agreement establishes an enhanced transparency framework to track countries’ actions, and calls on countries to strengthen their NDCs every five years."

I think that’s a pretty good primer on some of the major terms you’ll encounter. Having this shared understanding of the basics is going to make your life—and saving the planet—so much easier.


To build an even deeper understanding of what it's going to take to save the planet, buy "Sustainability for the Rest of Us: Your No-Bullshit, Five-Point Plan for Saving the Planet," out now at these retailers.

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