Friday, May 25, 2012

Sustainable Language - by Lauren Campbell


Earlier this year I was lucky enough to participate in a conference discussing social entrepreneurship. It was titled CHANGING THE WORLD THROGH SOCIAL ENTREPRENERUSHIP. Social entrepreneurship (SE) has been around for some decades; however, it has recently began to pick up steam.

There were three individuals on the panels I wanted to listen to about SE; they were there to discuss their expertise on the topic. They stated how much money each of their businesses brought in each year, what awards the company and what they personally have received. They then discussed the modern trends of Social Entrepreneurship. It was ironic listening to them discuss what they have done to help with the SE initiative in their own areas….as they held their Coach purses and wore their Armani suits.

The word of the day that day was “sustainability.” As I listened to each of these individuals talk I began to realize that the word sustainability has a very high perceived market value and with every increase in the perceived market value, the actual market value of ‘sustainability’ decreases.

It was while I was sitting there, disappointed that I had wasted my time with the particular discussion, I realized that ‘sustainability’ has turned into a wash. The discourse around the sustainability initiative is now being driven by a perceived positive impact -- rarely actual incentives and results. Marketers now use the term loosely to get their product sold, even if their product is not ‘sustainable.’ This infuriated me. How can we make a difference if the language we use to help our planet is being sold out to large companies to make a profit? We can’t even keep our vocabulary…it too has been bought and sold many times over.

I then came across this video discussing the lexicon of sustainability and how it is being abused in the food industry. Why did this surprise me? It shouldn't have. The discussion in the video around the use of words and labels on products was very intriguing and inspiring to say the least. 


How are we, as consumers, supposed to know what to buy if the advertisers are allowed to mislabel their products? Or allowed to bend the truth for more sales and profits on their end. My husband, Jin, and I have both strived to be responsible consumers. We want to support the organic movement as well as humane animal treatment in the food industry. We cut back our animal intake for those exact purposes; willing to pay 4 dollars for a carton of eggs, believing that we are supporting a humane animal industry. This also meant cutting down our egg intake so that we could afford to support such beliefs; after watching the video from above, I realized it is much more complex than just cutting back and spending more.  

My husband fully believes that a conversation can change the world. I believe this too. However, when big corporations come and take our lexicon, our vocabulary, and use them as a marketing scheme, devaluing the terms, what are we left with?  Language is an ever evolving socio-cultural advantage.  Language has been used to change human history and will continue to do so. The idea that our language shapes the way we think and act is not new, but I think that it has lost its relatedness to our actions. We do not understand that our words can be turned around and betrayed by an advertising industry. We forget that words are a force to be reckoned with and that the green initiative began with such force, with such words.

We must keep our words, our vocabulary. We must not allow the large corporations to manipulate our lexicon so that they can make more money to line their pockets. Language is a very important aspect of the human condition and we are responsible for how it is used. 

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