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Making buzzwords meaningful

Updated: Jan 27

What does sustainable mean to you? Chances are it’s very different from your neighbour, stakeholder or consumer. When a word gets adapted to reflect/represent a concept and culture it becomes a buzzword and right now 'sustainable' is in.


Unfortunately, the popularity and broad meaning of the word sustainable is being used to help companies ‘greenwash’, increasing people's mistrust of those who use the word. They’re right to be cynical.


If you swap out ‘technology trigger’ for ‘buzzword conception’ in Gartner's Hype Cycle diagram below, you will see the life cycle of a buzzword. At its peak ‘sustainability’ united New Zealanders with a common goal to exist and do business without harming the environment or the economy and gave us hope that we were all on the same page and doing our bit. With varying interpretations and disingenuous use of the word, ‘sustainability’ is now sliding down the slope of disillusionment where we realise that not all sustainable claims are equal.



Most businesses claiming sustainability as a value, or their ‘why’ are opportunists trying to leverage off its popularity and are setting themselves up for a fall. The problem with sustainability as a value is it is too broad and sees people and businesses constantly making compromises and letting themselves down.


Consistent behaviour builds trust, which sits at the core of your Social Licence. Businesses need true and meaningful values that are specific to their 'why' if they want to set themselves up to succeed. We’re all guilty of compromising our values in a moment of convenience but with meaningful core values we always find our way back home. It's the difference between acting and being yourself, one is a lot easier and comes more naturally to us. Don't make life hard for yourself by trying to be who you think your stakeholders want you to be. Be your authentic self and build strong and enduring relationships.


I’m not saying the majority of New Zealanders and businesses don’t care about sustainability, but it is not everyone’s core value. This is a trap for businesses trying to leverage off the buzzword flavour of the month, otherwise known as ‘greenwashing’, because they will quickly be found out when they pick and choose their sustainability moments to when it suits them.


Your values are part of your ‘why’ and should be things that come naturally to you. Values are what creates authentic behaviour and earns you trust - your Social Licence to Operate. Of course, deciding on a business’s values and ‘why’ is a lot harder than for yourself, as you need to find something that everyone can buy into and bring themselves to the table. But once you have found that ‘holy grail’ you are flying.


I've experienced the difference between working for a business with a good why and values and a soulless machine. At Ravensdown, people have a meaningful purpose they can get behind - ‘enabling smarter farming for a better New Zealand’ (why). The core values that underpin that being ‘empowered people, enduring relationships, environmental leadership, driving innovation and successful cooperative’, which we can all resonate with.


For my Social Licence Consulting business, my why is to ‘empower a business culture of humanisation’ with core values of empathy, authenticity and openness. I’m hoping these examples give you an idea of the power of being more specific. If my why was ‘to make New Zealand sustainable’ and my core values were, let’s say, being sustainable, I am ripe for criticism in everything I do as soon as I get in my car or brush my teeth. I also have set myself a pretty broad scope that could see me wander off on many tangents, with the potential to inflate expectations and under deliver (see hype cycle).


Let’s say sustainability is a real core value for you. How about taking that one step further and asking yourself why? Is it because you want the land or business to be healthy for generations to come? Is it because you have respect for the gifts that nature provides and don’t want to abuse the privilege of being a caretaker of the land? Or you respect the people that come to work for you every day and want to ensure there is a business for them to continue to come to for as long as they and any future employees wish to come?


The risk of sticking with a generic buzzword as your ‘why’ or core value is that it won’t last forever and you will lose your enthusiasm as it's not meaning full to you. When the buzzword starts to get met with cynicism, as society’s understanding and expectations of the word aren’t met, you are vulnerable to those also being the perceptions of your brand. If you’re in it for the long haul, you should have a pretty good idea of your 'why' but if you’re unsure then it would pay to sit down and map out what ‘good looks like’ to you and where you see your business in 50 years’ time. Thinking long term helps eradicate the noise around you right now and centre yourself in your core purpose.


Most of the successful businesses I know have had a strong 'why' and core values that have propelled them into success. Because people love authentic brands that have a story they can get behind. Some have handled it well and some have suffered from the growing pains, struggling to hold onto their values and 'why' as they grew. Again, if you look at the ‘hype cycle’ diagram I think it applies here. If a business grows in popularity too fast, it can struggle to stay consistent as new people and stakeholders join the fold with different views and expectations of what the business should be. This causes confusion and disappointment with stakeholders, who thought their values were aligned but have started to see some inconsistencies, leading to the trough of disillusionment.


Fonterra is a prime example of a business that suffered from growing pains and lost its way trying to be everything to everyone. The good news is that it appears they have seen the light and are now consolidating back to their core values of doing the right thing, challenging boundaries with a co-operative spirit and making things happen. Now on the slope of enlightenment, I have every confidence that we will see Fonterra continue to adapt and thrive once again.

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