What Color is Sustainability?

February 5, 2014

Contributed by Doug Sereno, P.E., ENV SP

Branding (as used in marketing) is an interesting term.  I’m pretty sure its roots are deep in the American western practice of permanently imprinting ownership of livestock by the application of a very hot piece of wrought iron on an animal’s skin.  I have a vision of the Nike Swoosh, perhaps one of the most famous and well known commercial logos, permanently emblazoned in my brain, somehow branded there by an ingenious and very smart marketing type.

There are many ways to brand a commodity.  In addition to logos and trademarks, there are jingles (the “plop, plop, fizz, fizz…” of Alka-Seltzer), shapes (the shape of its bottle instantly identifies the world’s most well-known soft drink) and colors.  Colors can be very powerful brands.  Is there any mistaking the red of the American Heart Association, the unique orange of the University of Texas Longhorns or the pink of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation?

Sometimes, these color associations are come by naturally, as in the case of green for the environmental movement.  The association of environmentalism with the verdant hues of nature is a natural.  By extension, the color green is often associated with sustainability. But this seems to contradict sustainability’s fundamental concept that all three elements of the “triple bottom line” of environment, economy and society need to be balanced and addressed with the same importance.

The consequences of mis-associating the color green with sustainability was brought home quite personally in my own career when the agency I work for transformed itself with a new brand.  Quite unexpectedly, the community and several regulatory bodies opposed an environmental document we had issued to clear a major project.  The document was recalled and de-certified in what can only be called a resounding  and very embarrassing defeat.  In response, the agency re-grouped and re-defined itself as “green,” with sustainability as one of our major operating tenets.  I was tasked with leading the multi-divisional sustainability task force which progressed rapidly for two years to transform the operations of our agency.  When the time came to evolve from an ad-hoc task force to formalized position descriptions, it was decided that the positions rightly belonged in the environmental division and not in engineering. The thinking, I’m told, was that this was a “green” initiative.

Yet the work of our task force in this area led to a greater understanding that sustainability was much more than a “green” initiative. While sustainability ultimately involves every discipline, including engineering, environmental, planning, maintenance, operations, finance, administration, human resources, customer service and even tenant account managers, in some ways it all starts with engineering. The engineering division is responsible for designing and building the facilities that will be operated by our tenants and clients, so it is really up to us to ensure that sustainability is built in from the start.

I’ve heard recently of the trend to brand sustainability as “blue.”  I’ve seen this directed towards energy efficiency as well, which adds confusion to the issue.  As we discovered in our task force, sustainability should be an over-arching initiative, over and above organizational boundaries,  rightly addressed by systems thinking, integrating all the affected and varied facets of an organization, and not constrained or tainted by one color association.  So should it be green, blue or some other color, if we must?  I prefer to think of it not as just one hue, but as a spectrum of colors, representing all the diversity of thought and actions needed to make this a more sustainable world.

What color represents sustainability to you?

Doug Sereno, P.E., ENV SP, is Director of Program Management for the Port of Long Beach in California.
Tagged as:
  • White for purity, and untainted by artificial manmade toxicity and dirt.

    Green is characteristic of mold in its natural form – unhealthy and corrosive, not to mention new uses of artificial trees, & artificial turf. White is opaque, and transparent so necessary to the natural environment.

  • Very interested post Doug. I’ve often thought the same way about the ‘greening’ of sustainability. I think in many ways it does a disservice to the potential that aligning sustainability to the core of an organization can bring. Adam Werbach has an interesting take on this idea in his book Strategy for Sustainability – if you haven’t read it you may find it a good read.


Leave a Reply

— required *

— required *