What Ellen McArthur can teach us about translating for sustainability

Article written by Adam Woodhall, Associate Director, Carbon Smart

It can be a struggle to take the language of sustainability and translate it into something that resonates with heads and hearts. Consequently stakeholders are often not connecting fully with what sustainability can mean to them. There are many reasons for this, and this article will focus on one of them: the need to effectively translate the concepts of sustainability into something accessible to your stakeholders.

Our society, and many organisations, have transformed significantly since the late 20th century, with waves of innovation rising and flowing through. Topics such as Health & Safety, IT and HR have at one point been the hot topic with a need for translation.  Sustainability is the most recent of these ‘innovations’, and depending on your definition, has arguably the widest and deepest impact, and is therefore the most challenging to interpret.

Innovation Curve

To help frame the topic of translating for sustainability I will refer to the well-known diffusion of innovation bell curve that is illustrated in the diagram below.   This bell curve was developed in the 1960s and has stood the test of time, being seen as applicable to many different situations.  I would suggest most practitioners in organisations who are tasked with communicating sustainability are early adopters.  The innovators are typically academics, activists and think tanks.

When considering how to effectively interpret, the opportunity for the early adopters is take the thinking, language and concepts developed by the innovators and translate it into a language that will work for the early and late majority.  In the seed of this opportunity is the challenge: that the language is new, unfamiliar and relatively untested.

Innovation Curve

When an organisation launches a sustainability campaign of any scale, this is likely to be relatively ground breaking.  This can create excitement and interest compared to campaigns for more established topics, and whatever the language used, there can be a lot of attention given to sustainability.  Unfortunately the natural inertia and resistance to change of organisations leads to slower than expected uptake, especially in light of the seemingly compelling logic of sustainability.  Additionally, whilst many sustainability professionals have the topic front and centre, for most stakeholders in most organisations, the subject is something that appears to be of secondary importance, at best, to their day job.

Effective Translator

An early adopter or ‘translator’ who has focused on interpreting the value of sustainability and taking it to wider audience is the circular economy champion, Dame Ellen McArthur.  Circular economy challenges the preponderant model of “take > make > dispose” and suggests a different approach.

She has used the credibility she generated from sailing round the world single-handedly, to leverage a single minded focus on circular economy.   The foundation she set up has taken what was a mainly academic endeavour, and is now talking to the key decision makers and opinion formers in a way that appeals to them.  She has clearly listened to her stakeholders and thought deeply about how to communicate the circular economy in a language that works for her audience.  An example of how Ellen translates is by using the term ‘Circular Economy’ rather than ‘sustainability’ when speaking publicly.  This is because she believes that the word sustainability is less than compelling or involving.

The success of this approach is demonstrated by some of the world’s largest and most prestigious organisations signing up to be in the Circular Economy 100 and that Ellen was recently invited to attend the highly prestigious Davos World Economic summit.

Einstein once said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  The work of the Ellen McArthur Foundation is a good example of how to take a complex topic and translate it into something the majority can understand, without losing its inherent value.

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