Sustainability is dead. Or at least the entire language we use to talk about it should be buried.

Fashion icon and eco-advocate Alexa Chung sums up the problem nicely in British Vogue: “‘Ethical Fashion’: surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic … the language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags, and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks.”

In an effort to shape more sustainable consumerism in China, my nonprofit JUCCCE looks at aspirations of the enormous middle class — more than 450 million today, growing to 800 million by 2025, according to Helen Wang, author of The Chinese Dream. Let’s face it, the ladies who lunch and meet over mani-pedis are not likely to be swayed by words such as “circular economy,” “green” or “collaborative consumption.”

Sustainability messaging must shift hard from a focus on abstract responsibility to one that helps people make subconscious choices that make them feel good about themselves. We need to speak to the heart, not to the head.

The key issue at stake is scale. We need to remake the lexicon of sustainability if we are to move beyond preaching to the choir and gain serious mind share of the less interested masses.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2013, choice expert Sheena Iyengar led a group focused on sustainable choices through a thought exercise. She asked, “What was the last product you bought that you felt guilty about, why did you feel guilty about it, and why did you buy it?” Then she asked the same about “the last product you bought that you loved.” In both cases people said they bought things because they made them feel special.

Iyengar argues that people are motivated more by love than by guilt. If we love to do something, we will still do it even if we know it’s bad. Sustainability messaging must shift hard from a focus on abstract responsibility to one that helps people make subconscious choices that make them feel good about themselves. We need to speak to the heart, not to the head.

Language matters. So why is the sustainability community still stuck on the images of reduction?

Julian Borra, the former global creative director of Saatchi S, calls this the “irresistibility factor.” Actress Joanna Lumley, ambassador for Marks & Spencer’s Shwopping program, simply says, “Just make it gorgeous, dahling.”

Language matters. So why is the sustainability community still stuck on the images of reduction such as “zero,” “low carbon,” “energy efficiency” or “350”? Isn’t it time we started using a more emotional vernacular, like “sexy,” “unique” and “comfy”?

How do we talk in a way that shapes the aspirations of people, so that those aspirations are implicitly sustainable? As Jonah Sachs urges in his book Winning the Story Wars, an entire new myth must be crafted and told in a way that moves the masses away from the story that says, “Good citizens are consumers who drive the economy and drive social progress.” This, he explains, was a specific story the U.S. government called on marketers to develop in the post-Second World War years when America was faced with an economic crisis. “Consumption became the highest expression of individual liberty and national pride,” Sachs writes. Today he calls on us to remake our dreams.

JUCCCE is doing just that with the co-creation of a new China Dream called the “Harmonious Happy Dream.” A UK Dream spinoff, led by Best Foot Forward, launched this month in London with a workshop on redefining the language of sustainability. This paired effort is significant because it calls for reimagining prosperity and social norms in both a developing and a developed nation.

In the China Dream vision of a better quality of life, each focus area is phrased as an aspiration but drives sustainable behavior. “Transit-oriented design” becomes “convenient, metro-centered living.” “Trigenerational developments” becomes “vibrant living.” “Pollution reduction” becomes “safe food and water.” Sterile academic wording is replaced with personal benefits. In fact, the word “sustainability” is entirely replaced with the phrase “和悦 [harmonious happy].”

harmonious happy

和悦 [harmonious happy]

Fear and shame — the opposite of love — are also deeply personal emotions that can affect behavior, particularly in certain cultures such as China’s. In the U.S., Republican pollster Frank Luntz brilliantly shifted the term “estate tax” to the more emotional “death tax,” which killed any chance for success because the issue became synonymous with the fear of dying. Luntz’s motto is, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” In this case, people heard “vote for my death.”

But while fear might scare people away from one choice, it may not necessarily persuade them to go toward another. In climate change, unlike voting, it’s hard to show people what action they might immediately take to make a difference. 

Policy wonks, scientists and academics in the narrowly contained sustainability community are not naturally wired to use a language of emotion. They are fearful of not being taken seriously. Parties like JUCCCE and Best Foot Forward can help broaden conversations around sustainability by building connections between these experts and people in other fields, including advertising, movie production, marketing, behavioral psychology and religion. Such storytellers can be instrumental in lending a personality to the sustainability movement.

Let me show you what I mean. The following are some examples of people who should be engaged in sustainability efforts to push the movement forward.

Investor Jeremy Grantham of GMO stands out because he can passionately and articulately talk about the long-term future of the Earth through an economic lens that helps fellow investors see impacts in dollar signs.

Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and chair of the Global Agenda Council on Faith for the World Economic Forum, recently received a grant to pursue climate advocacy through faith communities. Stewardship of God’s creations in the Bible is a direct link to calls for environmental volunteerism.



Suzanne Shelton, an American pollster and behavior change specialist, talks about how humor may be more effective than education at breaking habits. She says, “Knowing a thing doesn’t mean you will do a thing.” Perhaps the biting wit of TV comedians Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert could be used to make fun of shameful unsustainable behavior.

The make-up-words-and-mix-them-into-mantras master of this generation,, can surely put a light and hip twist on sustainable behaviors.

Lastly, could we convert media king Ryan Seacrest, who has subverted the image of success in the American Dream into an orgy of conspicuous consumption with shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, into a sustainability advocate? If so, could he bring bling into sustainability?

In pointing out what makes a successful movie, Phillip Muhl, a major movie executive formerly of Disney, says that no one wants to watch a movie where the world is going to end and we’re all going to die. But we all love a good drama that shows us how screwed we can be, and yet the human race still perseveres. We go to movies for hope. How can environmentalists move from climate-weary white papers to magnetic box office–style stories?

The team behind the new Battlestar Galactica was brilliant in the way it allowed glimmers of hope in the midst of so much despair. Similarly, the human drama of everyday life on an Earth being stripped of resources must be told in a compelling way. Instead of the drama of polar bears or rising PM2.5 statistics, we must tell the story of us.

It’s time to start questioning not just what world we will leave behind, but what dreams we will shape for our children. To do that, we need to leave sustainability jargon behind and take up the language of hope. View Ensia homepage

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