Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Green and sustainable in a political context – Part 2: building a vocabulary of meaning and not just buzz

Posted in social networking and business by Timothy Platt on October 10, 2010

This is the second posting in a series on Green and sustainability in a political context, and a continuation of my first posting in this with Part 1: Standards, and Popular and Legal Definitions. That was an exceedingly boring posting in which I set out to discuss a very dry and abstract side to politics – the fact that the words we use carry a lot of baggage with them and of both assumed prior meaning which can differ from group and setting to group and setting, and from different underlying basic and unanalyzed assumptions. This is true for words like Green and sustainable, and environmental and for food you can add organic as well. In a broader political context I would posit that much of the conflict we see in politics today here in the United States stems from the fact that the key and self-defining terms used to designate our major political factions have become tainted by these types of distinctions and to a level of pejorative intensity as to block real communication. So one side sees liberal and its more recent alternative of progressive as carrying positive value and these words in fact do. The other side takes these words to be longer versions of “four letter words” – curses. The same could and should be pointed out about words like conservative, which are also at heart positive and replete with positive value, but which have been twisted in opposition.

Green and sustainable, environmental and related words are not caught up in this type of maelstrom of anger and vituperatude but a failure to acknowledge the differences in how key words like them are used and heard can have important consequences.

That said, I turn from the boring topic of how our key words that we take for granted can be taken for granted quite differently by others, to a related but hopefully much more interesting topic – the potential mine fields of buzz words and jargon. And having discussed the key overarching words of this topic area such as Green and sustainable I turn to a real buzz word and piece of obvious jargon – Green.

“XYZ brand solar panels are Green and good for the environment!” What does that mean? I start with that buzz word in the making, Green and with a basic set of questions:

• What should you measure to determine “Greenness”?
• How do you measure it and according to whose standards?
• How do you validate your measurements and the claims you base on them?

When you have an XYZ installed on your roof it does generate electricity and with a zero carbon footprint while in use. Does this make it Green and positively environmental? What if that XYZ solar panel is loaded with toxic compounds making its disposal at the end of its effective working life very problematical? What if producing it called for processes that collectively left a huge carbon footprint? So should you only look at the product itself or at its complete life cycle from the acquisition of the raw materials that would specifically go into it, through its disposal and with or without recycling? Buzz enters in as different people use these words with their own determination as to what gets counted here, and with a focus on conveying a positive marketing message.

• Everyone markets. The trick here is not to find ways to avoid doing so, but rather in finding ways to market a message you could sustainably live with.
• The trick is to market with a message that is clear and consistent, and that you would be able to comfortably continue with if all of your underlying discussions and assumptions leading up to it were to be made overtly, consciously public.

And with this I turn to a practice that like the toxic compound enriched XYZ of my made up example, carries full life cycle costs even if it is presented as effective and beneficial in at least a key part of its here and now immediate use: hydrofracking.

The petrochemical industry presents this as meeting our immediate and ongoing energy independence needs, and our economic sustainability concerns, and they can and do raise the point that our shale oil and shale gas reserves are vast. But this technology can only be viewed as sustainable if that word is decoupled from any sense of being Green or environmental, and if sustainability did not have to include the larger environmental context, where for example ground water and aquifer quality are considered. This is another extreme example like liberal and conservative as touched upon above, but the basic principles apply to less contentious situations and examples too.

With this I come to a key message I would convey here in this posting, and it connects into the two bullet points I list above regarding marketing. The marketing message we present to the world conveys who we are, what we stand for and what we do and whether we want it to or not, long term it always does. It is easy to fall into the trap of glossing over and of making buzz of what we say. If we want to be able to rely on what we say as really supporting our long term efforts though, we need to develop and convey our message as if all of our thoughts on the matter were transparent to all, and with as clear as possible an understanding of how others would hear and understand what we do have to say. And we have to listen to and hear them the same way too.

The petrochemical industry groups and the environmental groups they contend with both have within them people of good will. I take that as a basic assumption, as anything else cuts off the possibility of productive discussion or resolution of long standing and genuine concerns, where both sides do seek to address at least some genuine concerns. We have to listen to what we say and look for possible places where we could be misconstrued and we have to look to what others say, and perhaps especially those we disagree with to try and identify where we may be hearing a different message than they were trying to convey.

Note that this posting is not about buzz for the sake of deception and cynical deception at that. That type of buzz also happens, but this type is commoner and a lot more damaging.

I am going to continue this discussion with a third series installment, and will move on to the political process with that. I will be posting this series in Social Networking and Business and you can find this series and several others related to Green and Sustainability there as well.

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