Is sustainability familiar?

October 2013

If the birthday of sustainability were to be celebrated this year, the cake would have 300 candles. In 1713, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who was in charge of the Saxony state mining authority, set out the principle of “Nachhaltigkeit” (English: sustainability) in his treatise on yield forestry. Whilst it is not known how many Germans are aware of the term's origins, it is certain that sustainability has become a more familiar concept over the past few months. Across all generations, understanding of sustainability is much greater than it was a year ago.

Anyone wishing to act in a sustainable way has many options. Sustainably produced clothing, smartphones and furniture are now all offered by companies. Cooking courses teach how to fry and enjoy sustainably. Websites advertise “gentle” tourism, or eco-tourism. This issue has clearly left its mark on hearts and minds. More than 80% of Germans have heard, read or seen the term “Nachhaltigkeit” before, and 40% are even certain that they have come across it at some point, which is 8 percentage points more than in 2012. Following a slight decline in the previous year (see FocusTopic 10/2012 [LINK]), familiarity with the term has therefore improved again: While just under a quarter had no idea what it implies in 2012, this percentage has now decreased to only 17%. These are the findings of a current survey of at least 1,000 individuals carried out by GfK Marktforschung on behalf of the GfK Verein for the third time in September 2013.

Age: familiarity grows across all generations

The greatest increase in familiarity with the term was registered for the 35-49 age group, where the share of those who definitely knew the term increased by 10 percentage points to 45%. This group is therefore as “in the know” as those aged 50 to 64; those who grew up in an era of environmental activism and who already had the highest percentage of familiarity in previous years. The share of those who had never heard the term also dropped further in this age group. Overall, around one in ten Germans between the ages of 35 and 65 do not know the term today. Although younger Ger-mans are less informed on this subject, an increase has been recorded. This year, 37% of under 35s definitely know the term (2012: 30%) and only 18% have never heard of it (2012: 31%). Familiarity is improving slightly more slowly among the older generation. Although there was a 6 percentage point increase to 33% in those who knew it, sustainability is an unknown word to one quarter of older Germans, twice the share in the mid-age group.

Gender and origin: different awareness

Differences are apparent in the level of familiarity with regard to gender and origin. Although the term “Nachhaltigkeit” is known to a similar percentage in East and West Germany of more than 80%, the depth of understanding is rather dissimilar. Respondents in the West are more certain, with 43% stating they definitely know what it means. In contrast, only 33% say the same in the East. A similar distinction emerges between the genders. Again, more than 80% of both men and women have heard the term, but only 37% of women are certain they know what it means as opposed to 44% of men.

Associations with known term: environmental aspects top the list

What exactly do Germans associate with sustainability, if they have come across the term before? Respondents' answers to an open-ended question provide an insight. As in previous years, the issue is once again most strongly linked to environmental aspects. In particular, for a quarter of Germans familiar with the term sustainability, it specifically brought to mind environmentally friendly behavior and business, which is a year-on-year increase of 10 percentage points. A further 16% listed the use of renewable materials and 14% said saving resources. The issues of saving energy/renewable energy and recycling were mentioned by 7% and 6% respectively, despite the future of energy being such a prominent issue in the recent general election. Alongside environmental topics, Germans also mentioned general associations relating to the future as well as longevity. As in the 2012 survey, resistance and shelf life came to mind for one in five respondents, with 20% specifically naming durability and a long service life.

Social issues: very little association with sustainability

For 10% of those familiar with the term, sustainability means investing in the future and thinking about the consequences of actions, with a view to both ecology and other areas of life. Specifically thinking about future generations is only an issue that springs to mind for 6% of Germans when they think about sustainability. However, 11% have heard of the term but do not have a concrete idea of what it means.

Looking at sociodemographic data reveals that those familiar with the term are in relative agreement about its meaning. Whether young or old, from East or West Germany and male or female, environmental awareness is the issue all most frequently have in common. However, there are some differences when it comes to other aspects. It is clear that longevity and durability are only specifically linked to sustainability from a certain age onwards. Of those familiar with the term aged under 34, these areas are rarely mentioned. The use of renewable resources is more commonly mentioned by East Germans (21%) than those in the West (14%). The latter more commonly associate the consequences of their actions with sustainability (West: 12%; East: 6%). Men associate sustainability with saving resources more often than women.

A term with great tradition

“Sustainability” is therefore evidently a term that is playing an ever greater part in the vocabulary of the German population, although it is still some way from reaching its full potential. Those wishing to discover more are not limited to the works of von Carlowitz, but can easily find pieces on the topic that even predate his in other cultures. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama, already warned several millennia ago: “As a bee gathering nectar does not harm or disturb the color and fragrance of the flower; so do the wise move through the world.” (Treasury of Truth (Dhammapada) Chapter 4, Flowers, Verse 49).

Data source: GfK Verein (GfK Classic Bus, September 2013).

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: