Sustainability is dead; resilience, dying. What next?

Published June 7th, 2018

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

What is the new green buzzword that can be used to sell the water sector? I fear that the ones we have been using for the last decade and a half are both losing currency. “Sustainability” was great for the water sector because it just about summed up everything that we try to do. “Resilience” was also pretty powerful, particularly when trying to make the case for investment in infrastructure that would be good for the extremes of floods and droughts. But the selling power of both words is fading.

Twelve years ago, sustainability was something that everyone yearned for, and if you could build your brand around it, your customers would feel good about buying from you. Then came the financial crisis, followed by the fall in minerals prices. Sustainability started to sound stale. It was tired from over-use, and it was too closely associated with ideas (such as the “water-energy-food nexus”) which made most immediate sense when oil and minerals prices were high. According to Google Trends, the high point of interest in “sustainability” was April 2010. It has been steadily going downhill since then.

Meanwhile, “resilience” seemed to pick up strength. It chimed well with the idea that we needed to go beyond thinking about climate change mitigation and move towards adaptation. Hurricane Sandy and the California drought seemed to underline the point. It also seemed to fit the economic mood after the Global Financial Crisis.

The world is changing, however. Stand up at a conference today and start talking about “resilience” and you will lose the room within seconds. People have got the message, and with the global economic recovery, it doesn’t speak to the moment in the way it used to. No one wants to be told that they need to be resilient just when they thought that they were doing rather well. (Google Trends suggests “resilience” may have peaked in October last year).

Now the public mood is moving in another direction. Of course, there is a lot more angst about the rise of populist politics, but no one has forgotten the environment. The big concern at the moment is single-use plastics in the oceans, but this hasn’t coalesced into a word that captures the zeitgeist, let alone one that is of any use in corporate communications.

The issue has reminded the world that we don’t just live in a resource-constrained economy. We also live in one where much of our waste never really goes away. It either ends up in greenhouse gases or in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Nutrients and pharmaceuticals also fit into this category of things which will haunt us until we find a way of turning them into something positive.

It seems to me that this is building into a growing feeling that we need to reshape the global flow of trade. Instead of things moving from mines and wells to refineries and processors to households, drains and landfills, they need to move in a more circular direction around the economy. Paradoxically, this concept might fit quite well with the populist political agenda which is also committed to disrupting the flow of trade.

What we are looking for is an abstract noun that expresses the way we feel about the planet. It won’t be something specific like “the circular economy”. It will be a word that combines a more general feeling of concern with an active commitment to change. I haven’t heard it yet, but I am sure that it will emerge in the next few months. Listen out for it at conferences, on social media, and in corporate communications. Whatever it is, it is going to help sell a lot of things for the water business.