What is sustainability?

October 2011

Under the slogan “Greener phone calls”, a German mobile network operator has collaborated with a nature conservation organization to offer an eco-friendly call tariff. The group is striving for nature conservation in the value chain starting from the ecological production of mobile phones through to the “eco-friendly” dispatch of phones to customers and free solar charging devices. Examples like this show that companies are focusing more and more on the subject of sustainability. One travel group presents annual awards to the “most sustainable hotels” and a well-known baby food manufacturer promoted this topic in one of its recent TV commercials. Sustainability has long since become a key aspect in marketing, but does this abstract term mean anything to the recipients of these advertising messages?

Around 80% and therefore the vast majority of Germans have heard, seen or read the term “sustainability” somewhere before. One in three even state that they have definitely come across this subject before, 43% think that they have heard this term before, whereas one in five have never heard of the word. These are the results of a recent survey, for which GfK Marktforschung interviewed almost 1,000 individuals on behalf of the GfK Verein in September 2011. The survey also revealed that the term is most familiar to the generation aged 35 to 49. In this age group, only 18% have never heard of sustainability, whereas 39% have definitely heard of it before. Those aged 50 to 64 feel similarly well informed. In this generation, which has grown up with the subject of environmental protection, 20% have never heard of the word sustainability and 41% are very familiar with it. However, the degree of familiarity tends to fall as people get older. One in four people aged over 65 say that the term sustainability means nothing to them. A similar picture emerges amongst the younger generation: in the 14 to 34 age group, a quarter has never heard of sustainability.

The level of education influences whether people are familiar with the subject of sustainability or not more than age. In the survey, 91% of academics and only 69% of those with a secondary school education are familiar with the term. Origin, on the other hand, plays no part. Sustainability is equally well-known in both East and West Germany, at just under 80%.

Above all, sustainability means environmental and nature conservation

However, what do people who are familiar with the term automatically relate with it? The topic is most closely associated with ecological issues and almost one in two of those familiar with the term mentioned nature and environmental conservation. Specifically, 22% focused on environment-friendly actions and business practices and 17% on the use of renewable raw materials. On the other hand, roughly one in four associates sustainability with durability and a long service span. Only 4% mentioned a key aspect of sustainability, namely the wellbeing of future generations. It seems that many people have a very narrow interpretation of the term sustainability, with social aspects such as fair working conditions and the consumption of biological products virtually omitted from the agenda of those surveyed

The term sustainability is most familiar to the group aged between 35 and 49. Correspondingly, this age group is also particularly well informed. Approximately half of those familiar with the term associate it with nature and environmental conservation, with one in four thinking of durability or long service life. Only 15% admit that they have no idea what sustainability is, even though they have heard of the term before. In the 50-64 age group, the figure is one in five. 
Academics are not only most familiar with the term, they are also very knowledgeable about its meaning. More than one in two of those familiar with sustainability associate it with environmental and nature conservation. The wellbeing of future generations is regarded as a matter of sustainability by 7% of this population group. Similarly, an equal number of people think sustainability means considering the consequences of (one’s own) actions. Only 8% of academics have absolutely no idea what the term might mean. By comparison, out of those surveyed with a lower secondary education the figure is 26%.

There are small differences between east and west when it comes to the meaning of the term. Environmental conservation aspects come top regardless of origin. Although 23% of West Germans who are familiar with the term sustainability mention environmentally-friendly actions and business practices somewhat more frequently and only 14% of East Germans associate it with sustainability. Instead 23% of East Germans focus more on renewable raw materials (West: 15%) and 8% on recycling/reusability (West: 2%).

Therefore, most consumers associate sustainability directly with nature. In contrast, politicians, academics and also companies have a much wider interpretation of the term and wish to make it clear that their commitment covers social and economic aspects besides ecological issues. It appears that social and economic aspects tend to spring to mind less when consumers hear the word sustainability. Definitions and interpretations of the word are therefore far from clear. When searching for the roots of this term, a publication from 1713 emerges which was written by Hans Carl von Carlowitz. The mining director in charge of forestry at the royal court in Freiburg already focused on the “sustainable use” of forests.  In his “Sylvicultura oeconomica” he first mentions that only as much wood should be felled as can grow back to replace it through scheduled reforestation, sowing and planting. (Source: Encyclopedia of Sustainability)

Data source: GfK Verein (GfK Classic Bus, September 2011).

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: hello@nim.org.

October 2011