Lexicon of Sustainability: What’s in a Word?

These days, the word sustainability has become fairly ubiquitous, but what does it actually mean? That was the question that inspired Douglas Gayeton, author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, and his wife and collaborator Laura Howard-Gayeton, to found The Lexicon of Sustainability. Based on the simple premise that people can’t be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don’t know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability, the Lexicon has grown to include more than 200 terms, recommended and defined with help from the Lexicon’s many followers and contributors. Through innovative photographic collages, short films and a traveling exhibition featuring some of the leading thinkers in food, farming and conservation, this constantly evolving project is helping change the way we think – and speak – about sustainability.

What was the inspiration for this unique language-meets-sustainability-meets-art project? Was there a particular word or concept that set you off on this quest?

“We were at a dinner party in the Bay Area when someone used the term food miles (which the lexicon now defines as the distance food travels from the field to your table) in a weird way. A lively conversation ensued about food miles and we were astonished to learn that there was so much confusion around many of these terms.”

It seems like many of the words in the lexicon could potentially be difficult to narrow down. How do you come to a consensus on the most accurate and honest definition of a term like “seed to table” or “green collar”?

“We personally don’t actually define anything. We contact the leading thinkers who are working in these areas, and interview them through words and pictures. We are inspiring people to have a conversation, to dig deeper. In so doing people learn about these terms in impactful and unforgettable ways.”

Have any submissions to the lexicon surprised you?

“Yes. We’ve had people from all walks. My dad was the biggest surprise! He submitted the term Ten Thousand Years. According to this term, we should be determining whether our actions can be sustainable for 10,000 years. This applies to food, energy and water production and use. If we can be viable for that long, somebody else can worry about the future of the planet beyond that.”

Your beautiful photograph collages do so much to help tell the story of a word. How do you create them?

“That used to be a secret, but now we’re teaching high school students to make these information artworks. You’ll have to go back to high school to learn it!”

Crowdsourcing seems like a fairly vital component of The Lexicon of Sustainability. How do you involve the greater community in your efforts?

“People are participating by hosting pop up shows, nominating a teacher and sharing photos and films online. There is no center to this movement, it’s happening everywhere and everyone can participate!”

You’ve also initiated Project Localize, which helps teachers and students promote sustainable economic, social and cultural progress in their communities. How has this new crop of sustainability leaders surprised or impressed you?

“The students are amazing. Their passion and dedication to changing the world they live in through Project Localize is impressive. The re-localizing of systems to keep families and communities together is such a bonus to this work, and the biggest surprise to me is just how much local matters. The teachers, though, are by far the most amazing breed of human being I’ve met – they go so far beyond the call of duty. We owe our teachers everything!”

You’ve said before that a large part of the project is about reclaiming sustainability terms, and identifying “weasel” words like cage-free and free-range. Have you already seen some of your original lexicon terms co-opted? If so, have you had to make these definitions flexible to help keep them true?

“I think language will always be an evolution, no words get fixed in amber – just look at organic. Digging in and learning about it is the important part of the journey. We’re not memorizing math facts here.”

Tell us more about these pop-up shows and how individuals and organizations can become curators.

“All you need is a curiosity and a willingness to become active in your community. Visit LexiconOfSustainability.com and click on ‘curate a pop up show.'”

The Lexicon has worked with some true pioneers of sustainability like Dr. Elaine Ingham and Alice Waters. Are there any famous foodies, activists or experts on your wish list?

“Some of the most inspirational people we’ve met are the ones nobody had ever heard of… yet. It’s more exhilarating to discover some of these practices first and be the organization to share those untold stories.”

How can readers connect with your organization, or propose a new term to the ever-growing lexicon?

“Of course! Just email us at words@lexiconofsustainability.com, find us on Facebook, or call us 707-763-1491.”