Words Matter

What’s in a word?  There’s the technical definition, yes, but our experiences and our perceptions can create a certain understanding of particular words that are different from what others may accept.  Likewise, new terms are being created regularly and sometimes even become mainstream (“selfie,” anyone?).  Given this, one of our biggest challenges with the rapidly expanding sustainability movement, is explaining the terms commonly used to describe sustainability (the “lexicon”) and making those terms accessible and commonplace to all people.  Without a common language, we can’t expect to make lasting change in our communities.  This is where The Lexicon of Sustainability comes in.

Founded by Douglas Gayeton and Laura Howard-Gayeton, The Lexicon of Sustainability is a “project based on a simple premise: people can’t be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don’t know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability.”  To help explain these terms, Douglas and Laura have traveled across the United States (and are now branching out to other countries) to find thought leaders who can explain and provide examples of the terms of sustainability.  The information they gather is turned into “information artworks” and short films (now showing on PBS Food).

True Cost Accounting

Not only does defining the terms of sustainability help make the movement more accessible to a wider range of people, but it also helps us hold onto the authenticity of words.  Greenwashing is a tactic used by some companies to hijack the definition of certain terms.  Take the word “natural.” It’s a commonly used term, found on all sorts of products, from food to household cleaners.  But what does it mean to you?  What does it mean to the person sitting next to you? Does it mean organic? Non-GMO? Chemical-free? Synthetics-free? Pastured? Or something completely different?  To avoid this sort of dilemma, we can create firm definitions for the words of sustainability, yet still leave room for people to apply their own interpretations and experiences.  Pondering questions like these, and the intricacies of how individuals answer them, is the type of activity we find ourselves engaged in every day here at the Co-op. Terms matter, whether we’re discussing new signage or informational brochures amongst staff, or having one-on-one conversations with customers about food choices.


In addition to The Lexicon’s information artworks and short films, Douglas and Laura have also started working with high school students across the country as part of Project Localize.  Douglas and Laura teach the students how to create information artworks, and then the students go out into their local communities to highlight aspects of sustainable food systems.  This project started with a group of students in Ames, IA. The students did such an awesome job that The Lexicon brought the students’ information artworks to Washington, D.C. and hosted public showings of the work for the public, educators, and Congressmen.

Each of Douglas’ and Laura’s short films end with the statement, “Your words can change the world.”  By explaining the words of sustainability through the lens of solutions (rather than problems), we can work to change the perceptions of individuals, then businesses, then policy.  The decentralized information gathered by The Lexicon make the terms moving targets and easier to protect from greenwashing – terms that are owned and exemplified by sustainability thought leaders, farmers, educators, and people like you throughout the country.  By amassing these words and explanations into digestible and attractive artworks, The Lexicon has created an incredibly valuable and accessible resource for spreading the message of sustainability. If you would like to help spread the work of The Lexicon of Sustainability, you can apply to be a curator of their information artworks and host (or help others host) pop-up shows throughout your community. We hear there are a couple hosts around Vermont who are looking for help.  Additionally, The Lexicon encourages the spread of their information and videos via social media channels, so feel free to share away. And let us know via Twitter or Facebook which terms are your favorite!  Ours is Economies of Community (watch below).