Finding a Working Definition for Sustaining Sustainability

There are a total of 931 bills going through state legislative bodies that contain “sustainability” in them according to BillTrack50, the legislative tracking software.

Regulations span the entire value chain, from product design to marketing, and will impact brands and companies.

In Illinois, for example, The Illinois Administrative Code contains all the statewide rules and regulations. Within the code are all the state’s water regulations. These regulations are specific to the state and may enforce a federal ruling. This code includes the Illinois surface water quality standards and Illinois groundwater regulations.

In Massachusetts, on the other hand, the Wetland Protection Act prohibits the removal, dredging, filling, or altering of the following without a permit; the ocean, estuaries, creeks and rivers, streams, ponds, wetlands, and others. Any activity within 100 feet of those areas may also be subject to protection under this act. They also have an endangered Species Act.

All these current rules are on top of new legislation being proposed. And then, a lot depends on when you follow the money.

Pew Research found that state economic conditions impact environmental regulations. Their studies point out that in wealthier states where per capita incomes are higher (i.e., New Jersey, Massachusetts or Connecticut), lawmakers tend to see environmental regulations as worth the cost. By comparison, in poorer states, the tradeoff is seen as costing too many jobs and hurting the economy.[1]

Those studies were done pre-COVID, which changed everything. The map presented with bills containing the sustainability word is current.

What it means for Marketers

A brand’s regulatory competence with sustainability should be embraced throughout the C-suite and integrated across functions according to sources, whether you are selling lighting, plumbing, HVAC or other building-related products. But how does the marketer navigate sustainability for the brand? What is the real working definition of the word?

Words that are used often have intended and unintended consequences because of what they mean and how they make you feel. In the Intended and Unintended Consequences of Words, I presented a real-life example of a simple word I used in a meeting. It’s the same with the sustainability word.

Who would be against such a word? But, what does the word mean, and what are we prepared to do about it?

Many new rules are set to mandate action on everything from production and chemical use to recycling and waste. Gensler, perhaps the leading architect in the world, offers a 52 pager called Climate Action through Design. More recently, they published their Design Forecast 2024 which noted: “Long-term sustainability remains a priority for tenants and investors alike.”[2] They specifically point out that regulations are tightening in many cities, requiring more sustainable building practices (obviously a reference to such legislation).

In one instance, a client was building a plant to produce equipment and the developer outlined the benefits of building it “close to his worksite” to not only increase his leverage to gain rebates from the state, but to accommodate his LEED® certification requirements.

So defining sustainability seems to depend on the golden rule: it’s in the eye of the beholder.[3]

Such flexibility in defining your work definition of sustainability requires a thorough understanding of legislation, utilities, the scope of what typically has fallen outside the scope of a product manufacturer and the money you are going to put against that definition. Indeed, today, all companies seem to now be responsible for understanding significant emissions, pollution and waste, and regulations to both fix their own operations and force higher standards in their supply chains.[4]

Think about these important facts in the meantime:

  • Up to 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined in the design phase and is baked into materials utilized. In other words, sustainability can’t be an afterthought – it has to be upfront when the discussions begin, and if we’re serious, about everything concerning what we’re building now and for the people who are going to use it.
  • Greenwashing is high on consumer and regulatory agendas, with the claims of many companies seen as vague or misleading.[5] As what usually happens with trends, confusion sets in as everyone starts talking and producing what looks like relevant data. Filtering and challenging what you see and hear about sustainability is critical to having a real definition.
  • Despite corporation efforts, companies still struggle to secure sufficient data and performance metrics or define economic activities that can be considered sustainable. How much data can you eat? Since I wrote that blog years ago, the proliferation of data has only gotten worse. It’s not a matter of quantity; it’s a matter of quality. And the emergence of AI is going to make it all the more difficult figuring out what to believe (a client recently said 2023 was the last year we would be able to believe our eyes…can you imagine living in a world like that?).

As this sustainability regulatory landscape shapes itself, the year ahead presents an opportunity for B2B executives to examine their business models carefully through a holistic lens directed at the entire supply chain. Because that’s where true sustainability resides – the chain. And like any chain, there are weak links that will be up to marketers to find and fix.

It’s really a never-ending struggle, but like all struggles, it begins with the first step.

For example, life-cycle analysis has taken on more importance in the last couple of years. Designers are now focusing more on longevity and durability. Gensler in fact has made a commitment to reduce the carbon emissions on their projects by 2030 and has taken a critical step in that process by setting sustainability standards for the products that they specify every day on behalf of their clients. They have introduced what they call the Gensler Product Sustainability (GPS) Standards v1.0. for the top 12 most commonly used, high-impact product categories selected for our architecture and interior projects.

All well said and good; however, examining specifications carefully usually shows that sustainability is not always top of consideration: performance is.[6] There needs to be a balance between the drive for sustainability and performance – which is a never-ending pursuit as near as we can tell.

But it begins with defining the word itself. So, what’s your definition? Let me hear from you.


[1] Public support for environmental regulations varies by state by Brian Kennedy, 2016.

[2] Design Forecast 2024, Gensler.

[3] AIA has an interesting inforgraphic on the framework for design excellence that never once uses the word “sustainability.”

[4] Senator Rand Paul writing in the December 2023 issue of Imprimis about Lessons from the Great Covid Cover-Up said, “To think that we can prevent future pandemics, even as we continue to seek, catalog, and manipulate dangerous viruses, is the height of hubris.” The same might be said of our trying to control climate.

[5] EU Green Claims Directive curbs greenwashing by requiring sustainability. The Conference Board’s 11 page report spells out this effort.

[6] I remember when the green movement first caught on and designers thought cork flooring was a good thing.

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2 thoughts on “Finding a Working Definition for Sustaining Sustainability

  1. To find a working definition for sustaining sustainability, a company can follow a structured process that involves defining sustainability in the context of their specific business operations and goals. Here are steps a company can take:

    Assess Existing Practices and Goals:
    Start by evaluating your company’s current sustainability practices and goals. Understand what sustainability means to your organization at its current state.

    Stakeholder Engagement:
    Engage with key stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors, suppliers, and local communities. Gather their perspectives on sustainability and what they expect from your company.

    Review Industry Standards and Best Practices:
    Research industry-specific sustainability standards, certifications, and best practices that are relevant to your business. Consider benchmarks set by leading companies in your sector.

    Legal and Regulatory Compliance:
    Ensure compliance with local, national, and international regulations and laws related to sustainability and environmental impact.

    Set Clear Objectives:
    Establish clear and measurable sustainability objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with your company’s core values and long-term vision.

    Materiality Assessment:
    Identify the most material sustainability issues for your business. Determine which aspects of sustainability have the greatest impact on your operations and stakeholders.

    Life Cycle Assessment (LCA):
    Conduct a life cycle assessment of your products or services. This analysis helps you understand the environmental impacts associated with each stage, from production to disposal.

    Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Framework:
    Consider using established ESG frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), or the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to structure your sustainability reporting.

    Collaboration and Partnerships:
    Collaborate with industry peers, NGOs, and sustainability experts to gain insights and share best practices. Partnering with others can help refine your understanding of sustainability.

    Continuous Improvement:
    Sustainability is an ongoing journey. Regularly review and update your definition as your company evolves and new challenges and opportunities arise.

    Transparency and Communication:
    Communicate your sustainability definition and progress transparently to internal and external stakeholders. This fosters trust and accountability.

    Employee Training and Engagement:
    Ensure that employees are educated about your sustainability definition and goals. Encourage their participation in sustainability initiatives.

    Performance Measurement and Reporting:
    Implement a robust system for tracking and reporting on sustainability metrics. Regularly assess your progress against set targets and adapt your definition as needed.

    Feedback Loop:
    Encourage feedback from stakeholders and be open to adjusting your sustainability definition based on their input and changing circumstances.

    Leadership Commitment:
    Finally, ensure that senior leadership is committed to sustaining sustainability. Their support and dedication are crucial for the success of sustainability initiatives.

    By following these steps and adapting your sustainability definition as necessary, your company can develop a comprehensive and effective approach to sustaining sustainability that aligns with your unique business context and values.

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