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The need to link ethics and sustainability, and why language, not terminology, matters

I was at a meeting with some lawyers and anti-corruption consultants recently.

During the meeting it became obvious that whilst they were interested in the ethics angle of anti-corruption compliance, sustainability didn’t register as relevant.

They looked bemused when I mentioned it in a similar context to corporate ethics.

Ethics itself, is often looked at two ways in the anti-corruption space (where I have chaired a few conferences over the years).

Firstly, it’s lumped in with compliance as meaning obeying codes of conduct.

Secondly, if viewed more widely, its often looked at just as a training and badly-understood corporate culture issue around “doing the right thing”.

What am I saying here? (I’ll keep this short)

I’m suggesting that the term ‘ethics’, still only five years old for many compliance folks, is not an universally agreed paradigm in many companies and within the firms of their advisors.

Secondly, sustainability executives, teams, advisors and ‘Chief Sustainability Officers’ are in many cases, a long way from being understood as relevant to compliance and ethics teams, who ought to be their closest ally in any company.

How do we close that gap?

It’s by not talking about sustainability internally. Simply about smarter and better run business, that’s attuned to both risks and opportunities.

Innovation is one word that’s better understood than sustainability, which, frankly, is not even a better term than CSR.

Time, perhaps, to think harder about the language we use.

I’ve noticed a MASSIVE difference in the reactions of both executives and business journalists when I’ve switched ‘sustainability’ for ‘innovation’, or ‘better run business’.

NB: Eagle-eyed readers might comment that in this earlier post I said terminology doesn’t matter any more.

Am I contradicting myself? I hope not. In the earlier post I was suggesting companies and consultants should stop re-inventing terms to look more interesting. That’s fiddling while Rome burns in my book. What I mean in this above post is that we need to take jargon out of the area, and just talk about doing better business. That seems consistent to me.