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💫 5 considerations for adapting language in driving change forward

The September Spark

This is the monthly newsletter from Bemari where we talk about how to not get lost in sustainability. This month we talk about the role of language in enabling the change and driving action to address the poly-crisis.  

Language shapes thinking, makes ideas a reality and drives action. In sustainability this is particularly interesting as a lot of terminology used often has different meanings to different groups of people, or even means nothing to other groups, becoming a barrier to positive progress. We have seen that becoming equipped with the right language is important for effectively engaging stakeholders within the business in order to drive and enable the change we need.


This month we wanted to share 5 observations on the topic of language that might help you navigate this challenging space:

  1. Carbon accounting made a lot of organisations dive into a new world of terminology, concepts and ideas that are quite complex at the outset - this was a crash course in adapting science language to business. A lot more people now speak “scopes” and “emission factors” but this is far from common knowledge and there is still a need for “translation” across domains of expertise. Bringing carbon to life in a way that resonates with your audience is still your most effective tool for decarbonisation. Using examples of every day things, avoiding “scopes” speak where it is more important to know if it is purchasing or transportation to the site - anything that helps people relate to the topic. One of the most effective ways we have seen is actually to not use the word “carbon” at all - but instead focus on what causes it: instead of “we need to reduce carbon emissions by x” try talking about “how do we redesign our products to increase the use of materials made out of agricultural waste”?

  2. With new reporting frameworks, many organisations now have to expand their thinking to the new domains such as nature and biodiversity - this is a whole new set of terminology and concepts that need to be well understood before meaningful action can be taken. Sustainability leads and various business functions need to now get their heads around the new world of nature realms, habitats and nature dependencies. Even though nature is much more tangible than carbon as we see it every day, it is still a challenge to bring geography and ecology into the operational discussions.

  3. It is important to recognise that nature & finance currently have no shared language - most nature experts do not speak finance and finance/ supply chain management teams are not fluent in nature. Both parties will need to find ways to connect and this transition takes time; but you have an opportunity to build on the foundation of the carbon efforts - the reporting standards intentionally offer a similar structure in both carbon and nature related disclosures and more and more convergence in requirements is seen in various standards.

  4. There is also an ongoing debate as to whether it is useful to use the imperatives to ‘cut’, ‘reduce’ and ‘diminish’, or instead we should embrace language that speaks to goals and aspirations. In the context of the unfolding crisis there is going to be a need for both at the appropriate time and as relevant for stakeholders. Those who just need to know what to do to be part of the solution just need the specific direction, and focusing on higher level broader concepts themes like “embrace circularity” or “reduce nature loss” might actually diminish their enthusiasm as it leaves them with no action

  5. Use popular terms sparingly: some no longer mean just one thing or have lost the meaning because they have been misused. As change makers, it is important to consider whether the terminology we use aligns others around the same idea or in fact divides because people focus on what they understand the terms to be - or even worse, turns them off because they just “hear a buzzword”. The three most obvious examples to consider (and avoid):

Sustainability - it has become a misnomer and a multi-functional word at the same time.

  • This word has been used a number of times in this newsletter, because it is a code word within the community - we know roughly that this refers to people and planet. However, it tells us nothing about the urgency, the scale of change needed or the effects of inactions - which is what is actually implied. In a way, the vagueness of the word may actually give the false sense of security or even put people off due to being seen as irrelevant in the current circumstances.

  • When you describe something as sustainable, it actually immediately becomes meaningless (and sometimes illegal according to the ASA). There are so many aspects to consider that the term just replaces the specifics e.g. recycled material, reusable, slightly better than the alternative (?).

  • In reality, real-life sustainability is the goal, but it comes as a result of restorative and regenerative action - the current state of the depleted natural world cannot be “sustained” if we were to survive. So really, what we are talking about is how we take steps to restore and regenerate nature and communities to some sort of level where it is no longer at risk of collapse.

Impact - Another code word that is often used in a well-meaning manner, Impact though can be both positive and negative, and in fact every action will have an impact. In the words of one of the Bemarians, “if one gets punched in the face, that is impact”. We use this definition of Impact which helps frame the discussion around specifics of the change to be created and for whom. Details can actually be more impactful sometimes (pun intended!).

Circularity - This is the most genius word - it simultaneously covers a myriad of very important concepts, created a new brand out of the things that have been done for centuries and then forgotten such as not creating waste and reusing materials for as long as possible; and at the same time acts as a stand-in for recycling and a library (the least known example of circularity). The term is very versatile and at the same can be very confusing if not qualified in the specific context - same test can apply: would everyone understand the phrase a “circular product”?

Do you have suggestions for better terms that can replace the ones above? What are the other terms that are very popular but may no longer be as useful in driving action? Please share with as at [email protected] or in the comments below.

For your toolkit

Peta suggests alternatives to some of the popular idioms referencing animals. The first one definitely makes you reconsider if the sentence earlier you were talking about nature restoration!

“A greater consciousness of the ways in which we use language to talk about the environment is an important part of changing our unsustainable behaviours into sustainable ones. If the language we use suggests neutral or positive outcomes for actions that are actually unsustainable, then we will continue to behave unsustainably. Language use is critical to communicating scientific knowledge about environmental problems in a way that empowers people to take necessary actions for more sustainable lifestyles – whether it be money-saving potential or corporate citizenship”

(Canning, 2010)

Do you have lessons learned from your sustainability efforts that someone would benefit from? Please share by emailing [email protected].

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