Clarity vs Popularity – A word called “Sustainability”


GUEST POST by Ideas Roadshow

A friend of mine has long argued that there is an inverse relationship between the popularity of a word and its meaning. The trendier a word has become, he says, the fuzzier it is, until eventually it’s used everywhere and means nothing.

“Sustainability” seems a perfect example for his theory. Once a word primarily associated with dour environmentalists, it’s hard to think of someone these days who does not avidly chatter away about its merits. Politicians of all stripes routinely vie to outdo one another to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. Corporations now have Chief Sustainability Officers. We are all sustainability advocates now. But what are we actually talking about?

Not much, it seems.

Into this yawning semantic void steps Andy Hoffman. A business school professor who regularly rubs shoulders with major players throughout America’s corporate landscape, Hoffman might seem an odd choice to be the driving force for a fundamental reinterpretation of the green lexicon.

But a closer examination shows that he has spent the majority of his career searching for constructive and practical ways to develop mutually beneficial common ground between the forces of capitalism and environmentalism. He is, after all, the Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

There’s that word again.

But Hoffman, to his credit, keeps pushing our understanding of what it actually means.

However vague it might be, he told me, our widespread invocation of “sustainability” is a good thing. Once rejected from a position at a top-tier business school for being “too focused on the environment”, Hoffman welcomes the fact that sustainability has finally “gone main- stream”. But that’s only the first step.

“Now it’s time to discover ‘sustainability 2.0’: where do we have to go next? There’s been change to a certain point. But the problems continue to get worse and even more radical shifts are called for.”

A radical shift is exactly what you might call Hoffman’s latest work, Flourishing, written in collaboration with his old mentor John Ehrenfeld. The book is a dialogue between the two experts that begins with an analysis of the issues at play and concludes with a final chapter entitled, “Reasons to be Hopeful”.

Throughout the conversation, Hoffman plays the straight man to Ehrenfeld’s more radical declarations. What is needed, Ehrenfeld avers, is not simply incremental improvements to help us preserve our status quo, but nothing less than a redefinition of our core values, a collective societal shift away from perpetual consumerism towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

To that end, a new definition of that oh-so-troubling word is presented. “Sustainability”, we are told, is “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever”.

When I finally had the chance to confront Andy with my befuddlement at the whole idea of business schools saving the planet, he calmly deflected my concerns.

“Well, there’s definitely a demographic you describe, but more and more students are coming into business schools because they want to make a positive change in the world and they see that business has the power base to do it. And they see the potential opportunities.

“When I first got into this, I wanted to try to teach students to go into companies and help them to see environmental issues as strategic opportunities. We have more and more students coming out and saying, ‘I don’t want to go into a company and teach them, I want to do it myself.’

“And a lot of our students are creating start-ups. I had a meeting just now with a group of students about a business plan for a new initiative. Increasingly, young people are motivated by the idea of creating a company that can try to address social and environmental issues.

From a rather unexpected quarter, Andy Hoffman offers us a very clear diagnosis of one of the biggest problems of our age. His solution might well prove not to be terribly popular. But that doesn’t make it any less correct.

Watch the full conversation with Andy at


8 thoughts on “Clarity vs Popularity – A word called “Sustainability”

  1. Absolutely love this article! Andy Hoffman is my new professional idol. As a student at the University at Buffalo seeking a degree in Business Administration (with a concentration in Supply Chain Management) as well as a minor in Environmental Studies (with a core focus of Environmental Policies), my career goal is to help companies become more green, especially through optimizations of their supply chain. Would love to hear more about Professor Hoffman’s work and teachings.

    Kyle Ephraim

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