All this diligent measurement, often seen in hundreds of pages of meticulous reporting, removes sustainability from the realm of common interest. Sustainability is for everyone and should be understood by everyone; shared understanding is the first step for shared action.
Language is an underappreciated factor in sustainability reporting, despite the lexicon continually running into trouble.
A decade ago, fearing a tarnished reputation, it seemed that “green” was out and “blue” was in. Around the same time, even the word “sustainability” was on the chopping block, a change that Patagonia continues to embrace. Nowadays, savvy grocery shoppers know that “cage free” is meaningless but “pasture raised” actually describes the eggs they want to buy. “Regenerative” is the latest promising term that may become meaningless before it’s properly understood.
This isn’t just a greenwashing problem — it’s a crisis of language: How can we talk about and report sustainability truly, accurately and authentically if the words we use to describe it keep losing their meaning?
One popular strategy is to rely on numbers. Reporting standards, investors and regulators all require sustainability to be measured and reported numerically; in no small part because numbers seem less malleable than words. Numbers feel precise; and it’s more difficult for bad actors to hide behind the precision of quantification. They offer the feeling of control — that the right inputs will generate the desired outputs — assuring us that complex, global forces can be represented simply and measured precisely.
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But numbers aren’t a perfect solution for sustainability representation, either. Practitioners already know that tweaks in reporting can make bad numbers look good (omitting Scope 3 emissions being a particularly popular strategy); but the larger problem is that numerical representation is not a neutral way of conveying information any more than language is. With greenhouse gas emissions, for example, reporting CO2e is the metric du jour; yet it is simply impossible to contextualize or relate to those figures. We already know that large numbers are hard to grasp, as seen in reports on COVID deaths or government spending. It’s the same situation with emissions: Even if we know that GHG reduction is vitally important, it’s difficult to feel any connection to the process when all we see is one huge number turning into a slightly smaller number. The abstraction is worsened when those numbers are describing weights of invisible gas. Does any common reader actually know what quantity of CO2e is good, bad or indifferent, relative to company size by industry?
What stories we tell to tell other stories
The real problem with representing sustainability numerically, however, is that the vitality of the enterprise is sterilized. The public only gets to see sustainability work as a mechanism by which numbers are made into different numbers. Even if this is an accurate accounting of progress in one sense, the emotional stakes and human element are lost. The result of all this diligent measurement, often presented over hundreds of pages of meticulous reporting, is the removal of sustainability from the realm of common interest. Instead, it becomes a specialists’ discourse, only understood by a handful of people with the education and experience necessary to understand it. The fact that sustainability has direct and immediate impact for real people simply doesn’t translate past the acronyms, graphs, metrics, standards, and numbers.
Philosopher Donna Haraway’s 2016 book Staying with the Trouble contains the following (in)famous declaration:
“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”
As sustainability practitioners, we’d do well to heed those words. On some level, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the same thing as saving Pacific Islanders from rising sea levels. But it matters what stories tell this story: As a series of graphs showing shrinking shorelines, or pledges to turn large numbers into smaller numbers, the project is understood differently than when readers see stories that involve the Islanders themselves. Show the people, say their names, show their faces, let them share how their dreams are being taken from them – that’s a project with energy and urgency, accurately told in a way that honors the actual human impact of insufficient action.
Sustainability is a people issue; it is enacted by people for people, not to mention animals and plant life. Sustainability is about poverty, it’s about children, it’s about families and livelihoods and cultures and traditions. Show how sustainability matters to people and let it mean something recognizable to the people who need to recognize it — i.e., everyone. When sustainability is reduced to “good number goes up, bad number goes down,” we lose the human element — which is the point of the project in the first place. As the climate crisis worsens, we need the urgency wrought from emotional response to galvanize action now.
The latest Yogi Sustainability Report is a small step in this direction. We reached out to our suppliers, asked them how they’re being impacted by climate change, and learned what they’re doing to address the crisis. On some pages, we figure prominently — organizing projects, funding interventions or collaborating with industry partners. In other stories, we’re just supporting these farmers by buying their ingredients — same as anyone else. The point is to let our suppliers speak — to show that there are real people, on real land, facing real challenges at the far side of a tea bag; and every envelope is a means of supporting them. We believe our drinkers want to know these people — and that once our drinkers get to know them, they’ll be as excited to support their efforts as we are.
Neither language nor numbers alone can convey the whole sustainability story, and both are necessary to tell these stories accurately and well. But the way a question is asked always has bearing on the resulting answer — or, per Haraway, it matters what stories we tell to tell this story. The numbers are important; but they will only mean something in relation to the people whose lived experiences they inform. Sustainability is for everyone and should be understood by everyone; shared understanding is the first step for shared action.