What does sustainability look like?

 Sustainability is green, right? Hands holding a tiny globe or seedlings growing from a tiny amount of soil on the palm of the hand are the first images that come to mind when thinking about sustainability.  It means grass and trees, circles and round things such as apples that are reminiscent of the earth´s shape. Sustainability is sprouting things. Its arrows in a circular formation and a green frog sitting on a leaf. On a more technological level it becomes windmills and solar panels.  Often it is wheat growing on a field, bright sunflowers, clear skies and raindrops on a leaf of grass. It is a picture of children happily laughing and running on a field. It´s a woman sitting on a green field working on her laptop on a crystal clear day. And many, many times, it includes hands.

We know all these images of sustainability.  Googling sustainability and hitting the images button you get exactly that. Everything is green.  Interestingly, you still get a few pictures of the good old light bulb symbolizing innovation and invention, it may take a while before we think of  LED-lights lighting up at the a-ha!-moment.  But the spiraling energy saving lamps are making their way into our collective subconscious, slowly but surely.

It is hard to think how else might you transmit sustainability in images. When VR wanted to emphasize their services as a sustainable alternative they simply changed their traditional red corporate color to green. Simple as that. A little bit of paint and voila!

I wish we had a wider palette of sustainability imagery.  True, the worn items and even a little bit shabby things with peeling paint are sustainably trendy in the vintage circles. Recycling is making even less than perfect things acceptable.  That is nice. I just wish that the color palette would be a little bit wider. And maybe include some muted colors. Because sustainability is not always just simple brightness, happiness and bliss. Definitely communicating sustainability is not. If something, it is a dense and a little bit scary jungle, where you very easily loose your way and sight of the horizon as you listen to the eerie sounds of strange birds in the treetops somewhere above, invisible if the mist of tropical humidity.  You need a machete to make your way, but are afraid to use it – in case you accidently cut the lifeline of some precious and nearly extinct rare plant, which might carry the possibility of saving the human kind with its ancient genes. Communicating sustainability, it´s a job for coolheaded and educated Indiana Joneses.


  1. angelinakt said:

    Such an engaging comparison 🙂 If you allow, I would love to use the Indiana Jones metaphor in other lectures!

    You’re right, communicating sustainability is a Challenge (yes, capital C). Just thinking about how many people get a skeptical look on their faces seeing yet another green logo with a pair of leaves on it makes one immediately realize that things are not simple. Plus the echos of the backfire of widespread greenwashing in the 90s do not add to the credibility of sustainable efforts. The image of mother nature has just been overused heavily. So what is the next communication icon for sustainability? What happens when we get beyond the windpower mill against the blue skies? I’m very keen to find out.

  2. Sarri said:

    By all means! Let the Indiana “Green” Jones lead the way and show us how to avoid being hit by the poison arrows of the natives hidden in the jungle. 🙂

  3. Elina said:

    Sustainability, indeed, is green. I even dare to claim, that many of us think the color green when we hear the word “sustainability”. However, I have found this association extremely problematic, just because it seems that there is no other way to see the “greenness” in life, products and services.

    I also wish that we would have a much wider color palette when we are talking about sustainability. And I don’t mean just the actual colors, but also the way we understand things. I wish that the sustainability would become in people’s mind something more profound that H&M Conscious Collection, the continuous debate of which is better: paper or plastic bag, and recycling centers. I wish that we people could understand the true meaning of our daily choices and not to let all that lime green stuff to baffle us. We don’t solve the complex issues with degradable plastic bags, eco-labels or fair trade coffee. We need to understand that sustainability is about doing what is right and doing it well. We need to start seeing the forest from the trees and stop focusing on irrelevant details. Instead of asking people to look the world through green lenses, maybe we should just let them see the world as it is; as a jumble of all the possible colors. Maybe we then could see the true richness of our life and learn to treat our nature and each other with respect. That would be what I call real sustainability.

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