Sustainability: tracing the origins of the German word

October 2012

Anyone searching online for the term ‘nachhaltigkeit’ in Germany (sustainability in English), will find millions of mentions. For instance, German metal traders were recently able to find information on ’sustainable supply chains’ in the online commodities’ publication, Rohstoff-Dialog, while IMF demands for Greece to ensure the ’sustainability of their financial commitments’ were becoming increasingly vehement and the United Nations recently launched an initiative under the title: ‘Sustainable energy for all’. Some schools have even designed their syllabus with sustainability in mind, while fashion items may carry labels proclaiming their sustainability and building materials may lay claim to the same attribute. Irrespective, of whether this concerns global politics, the economy, education or finance: sustainability is on everyone’s lips. Yet not every German by a long way understands what ‘nachhaltigkeit’ – this fashionable buzzword – actually means.

Although ‘nachhaltigkeit’, that is, ‘sustainability’ is a frequent visitor to the contemporary public arena, only a third of Germans actually know what it means. Around 45% have at least heard of the term, while just under a quarter have no idea what it implies. These are the findings of a current survey of at least 1,000 individuals carried out by GfK Marktforschung for the GfK Verein in September 2012. A comparison with the findings for the prior year illustrates that knowledge of what the term denotes has not increased, notwithstanding the countless publications dealing with this complex issue. Quite the contrary: compared with 2011, the proportion of individuals aware of what the expression means has even dropped back slightly.

Young people and pensioners are least aware

Most aware of the term is the generation of 50 to 64 year-olds, that is, people who have grown up in the era of global environmental awareness. In this age group, just 15% have never heard of sustainability, while 36% say they are familiar with the term. The 35 to 49 year-old age group believes it is similarly well informed and here, 18% are completely ignorant of the term, while 35% claim to know it very well. In both these age groups, half the individuals said they had come across the term. In the youngest and oldest groups, however, the level of information is significantly lower: a good one in four individuals aged +65 and almost one in three under 35 have no idea what the expression means and in these groups, the number of individuals claiming a degree of familiarity with the term drops below one third.

Knowledge of sustainability: where you come from is irrelevant

Women come off slightly worse than men, with just under 30% claiming familiarity with the concept of sustainability, and equally as many admitting never to have heard of it. Conversely, among men, 37% know the expression, with only 18% having no idea what it meant by their own admission. While to some extent, gender plays a role in levels of information, the origins of those surveyed appear to be virtually irrelevant: sustainability is well known as a concept to around 30% of those surveyed in both east and west Germany, and just under half the population in both parts of Germany were aware of the term. Even those who are not familiar with the term are equally distributed across east and west Germany and in both parts, just under a quarter have no idea what ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ – sustainability – means.

Back to the roots of the term

The roots of the German word are particularly surprising, since the term is now used in the most varied contemporary contexts. However, what is now regarded as a fashionable catchword or buzzword is not actually an invention of our time. Anyone looking for its origins will have to delve back into the 18th century. At that time, the chief regional inspector of mines, also responsible for forestry management at the royal court of Saxony in Freiburg, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, was the first person to draw up some principles for the sustainable management of the forest. His aim was to make sure that no more trees should be felled than could be replaced by planned replanting. In this way, von Carlowitz was hoping to ensure that there would always be a good supply of wood for the construction of silver mines. While historic definition of ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ in German, which we translate as ‘sustainability’, still holds true today, it has become difficult to define precisely what everyone using the term understands by it.

Associations: environmental aspects dominate

What are the issues that people today associate with sustainability? For around one in four of those surveyed who claimed to be very familiar with the term, or at least to have heard of it, it is associated with tenability or durability: in fact, 21% of respondents gave ‘long life’ or ‘durability’ as the meaning. Overall, the term is mostly associated with a variety of different ecological aspects. For instance, around 16% of those familiar with the term ’sustainability’ associate it particularly with ’the use of renewable resources’ and the ‘saving of resources’. 14% understand it to denote general environmental awareness and activities, and 9% associate the expression with individuals thinking about the consequences of their actions and investing in the future. For 7% of Germans familiar with the concept of sustainability, the use of renewable energies and saving energy is what is meant by the term. However, social aspects rarely make an appearance in the rankings, with just 6% of the groups of respondents giving any thought to generations to come. Issues such as fair and equitable working conditions or management of ’human resources’ are completely absent from the list of associations, as, indeed, is the consumption of organic products. Overall, most Germans who claim to be well aware of the meaning of the term seem to give a relatively narrow definition of it.

A glance at the responses of those admitting that they are not particularly aware of sustainability, but have at least heard of or read about the concept, shows clearly that virtually one in four individuals have absolutely no idea of what is involved. Meanwhile, for those who are familiar with the concept, the critical focus lies in the considerate use of our resources. Consequently, one quarter (9% of the group claiming awareness) of these consumers associate sustainability with careful use of resources, while 22% (13% of the group claiming awareness) associate it with the use of renewable raw materials. Environmentally aware activities and considerations, recycling and energy saving are also frequent subjects associated with sustainability.

However, what does this mean for those wishing to spread the word about sustainability in the public arena? Or for those wanting to promote products, concepts or initiatives based on their sustainability? They should be clearly aware of the fact that what is meant by sustainability has passed the majority of the population by. To change that, needs information: only then can sustainability be more than a label or a fashionable buzzword, and this holds true especially for the general public.

Data source: GfK Verein (GfK Classic Bus, September 2012).

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

October 2012