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Making Sense of Sustainability Buzzwords

Words don’t start out as buzzwords. They often originate as technical words, but then lose meaning after being overused, transforming them from words to on-hand jargon. The word “green” takes 0.15 seconds to generate 16,330,000,000 results on Google. Edging in second place is “sustainable,” with 782,000,000 results in 0.95 seconds. “Regenerative” comes up short, taking 1.04 seconds to produce 34,000,000 results.  Despite the rapid search engine results, a 2015 special report by the Shelton Group found that of the 54% of people who believe the word “sustainable” is important, only 59% of people understand its meaning at all. The meanings of these buzzwords have only grown more elusive as they strategically pop up in the titles of various movements and organizations. These same movements and organizations are responsible for the evolution of these buzzwords, which can be mapped throughout history by investigating titles, mission statements, and underlying environmental current events throughout different time periods.  

From a definition standpoint, green issues or movements “relate to or are concerned with the protection of the environment.” In broad terms, dictionary definitions equate being green with being environmentally conscious in any shape or form. In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote about living a “green” life in The Maine Woods, and equated going green with calls to conserve and appreciate nature. In the 1960s, “going green” transformed from a call to preserve to a call to action in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson’s book detailed the prevalence of toxins and the effect of pesticides such as DDT in our food chain, leading to a national conversation that led to sweeping environmental policy, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and decades of environmental activism. 

The words “green” and “sustainable” are often used hand-in-hand. The word “sustainability” was first used in a United Nations document in 1978. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), convened by the UN in 1983,  defined “sustainable development” for the first time as “economic and social development that meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This brought sustainability under the umbrella of economic, social, and ecological development. While “green” is often used to represent the environmental movement in general, the definition for sustainability is more specific, incorporating specific concerns for economic growth and social equity. 

The term “regenerative,” on the other hand, “describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials.” The use of “regenerative sustainability” and “regeneration” has grown in recent years alongside the popularization of the circular economy.  The circular economy business model, in which “cycles, rather than linear processes, dominate” describes products and services that are designed to be reused in a cycle, which makes this model regenerative by nature that provides system-wide environmental effects.  In 2016, the UN recognized “regenerative communities,” as the key to climate change adaptation, fully integrating “regenerative” into the slew of existing environmental buzzwords. 

One example that characterizes the evolution of sustainability jargon is the tourism industry, which has adopted many buzzwords in an attempt to represent their rapidly changing environmental targets and achievements. The movement to go green is embedded in the travel industry because of its massive contribution to global CO2 emissions. Countless coalitions such as “TourismCares,” “Sustainable Travel International,” and “Eco-Companion” pledge to protect and conserve travel destinations around the globe. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism, or “green” travel, as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” Numerous blogs and travel companies promote green travel, suggesting the use of reusable water bottles, public transport, and staying in environmentally-friendly hotels. Sustainable travel follows along the same lines as a method that aims to counterbalance the social and environmental impacts associated with travel.” 

The emergence of regenerative tourism takes this approach one step further by seeking to leave a destination better than guests find it. Regenerative Travel, a booking agency created in 2019, claim to be part of a “co-evolution” of the tourism industry, founded on the principle that “we are at a turning point as a human species to reverse the trajectory of climate change with an urgent call to repair and replenish the damage to our environment and our communities.” The agency is made up of 45 unique resorts, each detailing their regenerative impact on the site. In short, these properties support and include the local community in their hospitality. To name an example, a property in Playa Viva feeds their guests from an on-site regenerative farm, involves local youth in hospitality training, and donates 2% of their revenue to various local environmental and community projects. In this way, regenerative tourism aims to improve the travel destination instead of simply attempting to do no harm.

Despite the evolution of buzzwords, the tourism sector contributed approximately 5% of all man-made CO2 emissions in 2005, increasing to 8% by 2020. Changing organization’s names and adding new vocabulary to mission statements does not decrease their carbon footprint. Although buzzwords have a negative connotation as important-sounding terms that lack a deeper meaning, they can represent a general shift in industry focus. Regeneration as the next wave of sustainability is still a new concept, and any shift forward in terms of environmental action, however superficial, is a step forward.



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