Lost in Translation By James Cadman

For many years, we, as sustainability professionals have had to learn the ‘languages’ of different roles and functions within organisations if we want our message to be heard and acted on.

Constantly concerned that our clients and leaders won’t understand the terminology of environmental protection, societal benefit or ethical business, we have taught ourselves how to speak ‘Accountancy’ and ‘Legalese’, learning phrases such as ‘profit and loss’, ‘limited risk and liability’, and ‘return on investment’.

In some cases, this has gone as far as not even using the word ‘sustainability’ for fear that the intended recipient to influence will be turned off the subject, throwing their arms in the air with cries of, “What does it even mean?!”, “It’s too expensive!”, “It’s too hard!” and “What can we do about it!?”.

Enough: the tide is changing.

The phrase ‘triple bottom line’ has been on the lips of C-suite executives for some time now[1] to express how they are balancing the needs of People, Planet and Profit. Many organisations produce corporate responsibility reports to show the world what they are doing to reduce impact from their operations. And more recently, we have seen the rise of climate emergency declarations and related protests, and the increase in awareness of the loss of biodiversity on our planet.

As a consequence, boards, committees and councils are coming to terms with the fact that they need to do more than just balance the books. If they want their organisations to still be around in 25, 50, or even 100 years’ time, they need to take concerted action about these existential threats now; this is no longer something for future generations to deal with.

So, how do we translate and transform?

Achieving this change requires a paradigm shift in how we work and run our organisations. We need big and bold changes to move the ‘oil tanker’ quickly, decisively and significantly. The time for tinkering around the edges for that extra 5% efficiency gain in our current systems might now be regarded as ‘so last century’. But getting there demands a clear understanding of the issues and what needs to be done about them.

For an organisation to be successful – that is, to achieve its objectives and deliver its purpose – its leadership team must understand how strategic sustainability underpins everything it does.

Knowing what their sustainability priorities are and where they exist will drive the right decisions in investments and actions. Comprehending what ‘net zero’, ‘biodiversity net gain’ and ‘social value’ actually mean for them and their stakeholders will enable them to recognise the scale of the challenge and the work to be done.

Ultimately, making an informed and tacit link between economic stability and sustainable development will put them on the road to resilience and longevity.

In short, they need to be able to speak the language of sustainability. So perhaps, it’s time to go back to School.

Sprechen Sie “Nachhaltigkeit”?   Parlez-vous «développement durable» ?



[1] Albeit John Elkington has done a ‘product recall’ on this term that he coined two-and-a-half decades ago.

James Cadman

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James Cadman
Lead Consultant

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