What’s in a word

In last month’s edition the definition of sustainable investment for the blue economy was discussed (“A question of definition”, Fish Farmer October 2021). As sustainability is one of my favourite topics I felt that I should add my ha’penny worth! I can hear my children yawning at the very thought.

When we first put “sustainability” on our stand in Brussels, it was the only stand with the word on it. By the time I stepped down it was on every stand. I was invited to Norway to give a talk to some of the industry leaders on the subject. It is engraved deeply on my memory because one of those industry leaders said, and I quote directly: “All very interesting, but none of our customers are asking for it!”

It seems unbelievable that so little time ago anyone actually said that, let alone an industry leader. It was especially weird as his customers, in some cases, were the same as ours.

It has been such a bugbear of mine that it was the central theme of an annual talk I gave at Plymouth University. My fear for sustainability was that it would become an abused term like the word “quality”.

When I was young, a hell of a long time ago, Quality Street sweets were called that because “quality” meant “good quality”. Very soon the marketeers got hold of it and implied that there were various levels of quality, which meant that defining quality became more muddied and unclear. So I feared for “sustainability” and I still do.

In those days sustainability had a very simple Oxford English Dictionary definition: “That which does not deplete natural resources”.

It is such a clear and precise definition, but – surprise, surprise – that is not what the word is taken to mean now. We have mealy-mouthed definitions like “the quality of being able to continue for a long time” (Cambridge English Dictionary) or “the use of natural products or energy in a way that does not harm the environment”.

How and why this happened could fill a book. The fact is that sustainability is about the environment and how we use it. It is a simple concept that if we misuse the basic materials we have on this Earth, then our grandchildren will run out.

The problem was people worried that it might affect their field. So the social scientists got involved and insisted that it must include sustainability for human beings too. In other words if it affected the human population negatively, then it wasn’t sustainable; and then the money people got involved, insisting that if you didn’t have profitability, then the ventures would fail and so that wasn’t sustainable.

And so “People, Planet, Prosperity” came about or “triple bottom line sustainability”. It was all incredibly well meaning, but horribly diluting. I am not suggesting that the intention was to dilute the meaning, but nonetheless it happened.

The strength of the word is its simplicity, and environmental sustainability trumps the rest. If people or profits suffer, there will still be enough resources for future generations. If the environment suffers, there will not.

Some corporate responsibility statements have diluted the word even further. With a simple word that means something simple it is easy to see if someone is doing it or not. If it is a combination of things, then it is easier for companies to argue that one thing conflicts with another.

Yet if I said to you now that we can’t achieve sustainability because otherwise profits will suffer, you would rightly point out that profitability is irrelevant to sustainability. Profit is utterly irrelevant if there’s nothing to eat. Not that profitability is irrelevant, but “sustainability” is about natural resources and using them in a renewable way.

Bringing this back to aquaculture, there are so many ways that aquaculture is more sustainable than many food-producing industries. From the use of fishmeal to zero-input farming, aquaculture has a range of practices that are sustainable to various degrees.

Things like seaweed farming are very high on the scale, but even that is not completely sustainable. It suffers from – for example – the need for floats, transport to market and many other things. So the aspiration to be sustainable can guide a business but, like all of the best ideals, it is not achievable.

Those who do not like this dilute the concept. Saying “we are striving for sustainability” does not cut the mustard in today’s world, but neither does diluting the meaning of the word.

The difficulty for most producers is the plethora of people who think they understand their world better. So the virtue signallers cling onto words like sustainability and think that everyone should achieve it. Thus, industries and government bodies feel they need to dilute the word.

For us as an industry sustainability must be central to what we do or we won’t have businesses, not just because regulators will shut us down, but – much more importantly – because we won’t have sites on which to farm.


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Fish Farmer February 2024 cover, net pens in winter with snow

The February 2024 issue of Fish Farmer is out now online