By Neil Gilbert, Head of Digital and Sustainability, Gather

There is no doubt that sustainability is increasingly important to companies, their customers and the communities they operate within, but the word itself is becoming a victim of its own success, meaning potentially many different things to each of these groups.

Sustainability can now stand for anything from separating out rubbish in the office kitchen to setting up a social enterprise. It’s an idea which might well change the way we all live and work but it’s a very difficult word to rally behind. It’s now so diffuse that it risks becoming watered down and compromised by potential confusion about what it stands for.

This problem leads to a deep ambivalence and wide variation in the way businesses apply it. Is sustainability core to day-to-day business or is it red tape – a bureaucratic box to be ticked?

Our experience suggests that for most people the truth is somewhere in between. For every Marks and Spencer or Timberland defining themselves by their commitment, there are a dozen others that just don’t care.

Meanwhile, for the rest, it’s just confusing. If pressed, they would struggle to define what sustainability is and what their company is doing about it, but they know it’s not going away. It’s important to them but it’s not clear where it sits in the day-to-day life of the business.

Research from MIT Sloan business school backs this up – ‘Sustainability’s next frontier’. In a survey of 2,000 companies, about two-thirds of respondents rated social and environmental issues as ‘significant’ or ‘very significant’ but as few as 10% said their company was managing them effectively.)

This is understandable but businesses risk missing out in the following areas:
1) On people – customers and potential employees will gravitate towards brands that demonstrate how sustainability is aligned to their core purpose and values.
2) On the bottom line – through the short and long-term savings that can come from good sustainable practice. (For instance, turning the lights off at night or reducing churn in recruitment.)
3) On efficient and effective positive impact – by getting this right, companies can be much more effective in reducing impact on the environment and supporting the communities in which they operate.

So, instead of sustainability, what if we think about it as brand purpose?

A recent Economist article – ‘A new green wave’ – looks at a range of initiatives, from firms who do it, because they might save money or pack a PR punch, to those which have put sustainability at the heart of what they do.

For the latter it’s about understanding the values at the heart of their brand and aligning sustainable business practice to this, making it a part of their core brand purpose. So, for instance, when Unilever pledges to “help a billion people take steps to improve their health and well-being” they are bringing to life their company values. They have an eye watering ambition, but there’s no credibility gap.

Or, when Price Waterhouse Coopers devotes staff time and hard cash to establish a social enterprise next to their office), it makes sense. It’s bringing to life their core values of excellence, teamwork and leadership.

It’s unlikely that we’ll stop using the word ‘sustainability’ just yet, but as ever it will be defined by the people who pour real meaning into it by what they do.