The Linguistic Landscape of Sustainability: Green Progeria

by | Apr 26, 2011

This article is included in these additional categories:

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”

-Linguist, Benjamin Whorf

In this Whorf is correct: language informs what and how we are permitted to think about things. The tail wags the dog. This is why, in 2009,we published our first study on the language of sustainability – to better understand the culture of sustainability. Print advertising was selected as the delivery method for this language due to its reliance on reduction and the importance of concise messaging. In short, in print ads, the price of words is at a premium and therefore chosen deliberately (sometimes wisely).

We repeated this survey in 2011 to provide marketing and sustainability professionals with an up-to-date understanding of the dynamic linguistic landscape of promoting green concepts through goods, services and brands.

As in the past, we surveyed 100 print ads that were using sustainability (aka Green) as a primary driver of consumer and corporate benefit. We looked at the operative language used in those ads (headline, offer, featured body copy) in order to understand the popularity of word and phrase choices, both literally and figuratively.

In 2009, the most frequently used word in green advertising was the word “less” (27 times out of 100 ads). Its use was a reflection of a slow economy as manifested through green messaging. In nearly 70% of the uses of “less” it was conjoined with its opposite “more” – a transference of the context of sacrifice to a more consumer-palatable result. “Use Less Energy. Save More Money,” was a popular construct for hybrid technologies, automobiles, smart meters and one-stop shopping.

Our 2011 survey includes some vast departures compared to 2009. Most remarkable is the general dearth of green advertising. In 2009, 22% of all ads surveyed included green language describing the attributes or benefits of the product, service or company. In 2011 only 9% of all ads surveyed mentioned any sustainability attributes. This is in one sense a mark of maturation – green is simply no longer novel. Some of its spectacle may have worn off, and it has been relegated to just another product benefit. This is good for culture and troublesome for marketers.

This does not mean, however, that green was missing from ads. In fact we saw a disproportionate amount of ads implying sustainability through graphics with no linguistic reference to anything remotely green. Products (tires, servers, windows, shoes, makeup, etc.) were placed in forests, dangling in mid-air, and found resting in fresh fields in order to imply green. Sustainability became an alien landscape in which to place our consumables. Legally, this is a gaping greenwashing loophole.

Of legitimate sustainability messaging, Blue Chip companies lead the way focusing on their ability and willingness to join forces with supply chain partners and customers. The linguistic meme of “together” and “collaborate” was common and often paired with the concept of being “innovative” in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility.  The singular “we” (as corporation) was replaced with a collective “we” (as partners).  Coupled with “innovation” “collaboration” points to the recognition that we are facing complex problems and that the answers are not yet known.  The easy part of environmental sustainability is behind us.

All but gone are the over-simplified “go green” and “it’s not/is easy being green” of the past. Finally, our language reflects the reality that sustainability is a complex set of challenges requiring collaboration and design thinking.

Based on the survey, we noticed that Green language has indeed matured, but perhaps too quickly. This rapid maturation is introducing a new complexity to the species of the Green ad in a sort of Green Progeria – a premature aging resulting in linguistically fragile bodies and weak hearts. Green marketers should take note of the complexity and design promotions, campaigns and brand platforms accordingly.

The seven trendlines identified in the survey include the following:

1. LACK:  There was a general dearth of Green advertising.

2. IMPLIED:  Visual clues replaced written claims.

3. HIDDEN:  Most sustainability messaging was buried in body copy, as opposed to previous years where it was headline copy.

4. LOCAL:  “Global” was a trend in terms of framing the problems we currently face. “Local” was often a solution offered to mitigate the impact.

5. IDEAS:  The importance of innovation was a common theme to solving global problems.

6. TOGETHER:  Partnering with customers was an important new framing of an emerging trans-transactional relationship between companies and consumers.

7. REAL:  Authenticity starts to play into promotion.

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing. To download the complete (and free) report, please visit

Additional articles you will be interested in.

Stay Informed

Get E+E Leader Articles delivered via Newsletter right to your inbox!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Share This