Sustainable semantics

Semantics, according to Merriam-Webster, is the study of meaning. Meaning is conveyed in words. The green movement needs to clarify its semantics—its words—if it is to lead us to sustainability. To start, the words “green” and “sustainability” mean different things, but often are used interchangeably.


Semantics, according to Merriam-Webster, is the study of meaning. Meaning is conveyed in words. The green movement needs to clarify its semantics—its words—if it is to lead us to sustainability.

To start, the words “green” and “sustainability” mean different things, but often are used interchangeably. With sustainability being more complex in meaning and difficult to attain, we're green washing a green building when calling it sustainable, unless it truly is. But how are green and sustainability different?

Sustainability scientist and professor, James A. Wise, Ph.D., said, “Sustainability is a top-down framework of overarching principles that consider environmental, economic, and social measures based on an idealized model of what is sustainable. Green is a bottom-up approach, working to improve the environmental performance of a product or system sequentially over time. It typically is constrained to focus on environmental performance measures.”

Metaphorically speaking, sustainability is the destination and green is the drive to get us there. Calling a milestone the destination prematurely ends the trip, and it could detract others by changing the names on their map or unwittingly shortening their trips.

An example of a sustainability model is The Natural Step, which defines itself as “a framework grounded in natural science that serves as a guide for businesses, communities, educators, government entities, and individuals on the path toward sustainable development.” Its principles include societal health and ability to thrive in place, and environmental factors ranging from extraction to pollution and genetic diversity. The USGBC's family of LEED rating systems are green frameworks for buildings, just as Wise described.

Why the confusion of green versus sustainability? Perhaps people exchange green with sustainability to avoid repetitiveness. The word green can be formed as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. Hence, you can greenly green a green building to make it greener, and greening it more can make it the greenest around, but that doesn't ensure its greenness has achieved sustainability.

Substitutes for green are not as common as one would think. Eco-friendly and environmentally sensitive work well, but are longer and quickly become tiresome to readers. Joining green with other words for branding purposes or to take a shortcut to catch the eye of an audience is burdening the semantics, too. Common constructs are “green, eco-friendly buildings,” “green, high-performance buildings,” and “green, intelligent buildings.” These phrases are redundant, and detract from the integrating nature of greening. Can a green building lack good controls or not perform well and still be green?

Another semantic burr is the claim that for a building to be touted as green, it has to be LEED-certified. Not true. There are multiple rating systems, and new ones may emerge. And some prefer no rating system at all. Any certification is a convenient way to communicate a level of greenness, but a long-hand way of doing so doesn't change the facts about the building's design, construction, or performance.

And speaking of performance, will the real benchmark please stand up? But that's another column.

Author Information

Michael Ivanovich became the chief editor of Consulting-Specifying Engineer in January 2007. Prior to that, he was the chief editor of HPAC Engineering and a senior research scientist for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the fields of green buildings and information technology.

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