As in every industry, the sustainability lexicon has those oh-so-special terms that even the most articulate among us get used to throwing around in conversations and presentations—and then hate ourselves for the next morning. These are the words that are used so much that they don’t mean much of anything anymore—they may seem like industry buzzwords that are making you sound smart, but have they’ve really just turned into empty filler.

But when you’re going to interviews for environmentally minded companies, or networking in the field, you want to use vocab that makes you seem in the know. So what should you do?

Here are my picks for three words that you should probably avoid—and what to talk about instead if you want to seriously up your professional reputation.


1. Cleantech

A term original coined by Silicon Valley investors to classify the subsection of their portfolios in next-gen energy and resource efficiency, cleantech has become less and less helpful as a descriptor. Prone to identity issues and scope creep, cleantech has recently expanded to include online consumer-to-consumer platforms like Lyft and Airbnb. In 2012, Katie Fehrenbacher, the greentech editor at Gigaom, ruffled feathers with several articles in which she describes the phrase as just vague enough to not be useful, pointing to decisions by industry pioneers Lux Capital and Khosla Ventures to shun the term. Her colleague Adam Lesser explains, “Cleantech is an idea that we should leverage technology for the environment—it’s not an industry.”

Like many other terms that have lost their usefulness, cleantech hangs around waiting for something better to come along.


What to Say Instead

Be specific. Unless you need to refer to the sector as a whole, stick with the specifics of your technology. For example, do your homework and refer to your interest in particular advances in, say, tidal energy, biofuels, energy storage, energy efficiency software, or electric vehicles. Professionals in this field will be more impressed with your technical knowledge than verbal swagger.


2. Sustainable

Sadly, “sustainability” has also become a sullied term. It got dragged through the partisan politics that killed the climate change dialogue at the federal level in 2009 and suffered through the long recession recovery when many corporate execs and consumers saw sustainability as a cost center and shelved many progressive actions. Like cleantech, sustainability suffers from brand confusion: Does it include human rights, health, and fair trade issues, or is it primarily environmental? Practitioners are divided on this, and a good case has been made both ways depending on context.

The industry knows it has a branding problem on its hands and has taken sustainability underground. But meanwhile, no savvy environmental professional will use “green,” “sustainable,” “sustainability,” or anything that smells remotely like it if they are trying to encourage an idea or sell a product.


What to Say Instead

Have you watched TV lately? Then you’ll recognize the phrase “fuel economy” from automotive ads. Utilities are describing their sustainability (energy efficiency) programs as “savings on your energy bill.” Notice a theme here? Knowing that the sustainability conversation has evolved to embody a more consumer-oriented set of priorities will wow your clients, colleagues, or interviewers.

The other route here is to talk up the quality of a product (rather than say it’s made with green materials). Your product or service has to be ready walk the walk, though. In some ways, this has been successful with green pioneers like Method and Nike emphasizing high-performance goods (that just happen to be sustainable). Well played, friends.


3. Innovation

My personal pet peeve, this term has been slapped on everything from a loaf of bread to robot bands and is just as pervasive in the environmental field. It’s at best non-descript, and at worst, a tired cliché.

Although most environmental initiatives deserve kudos for championing real change and improvement for society (the efficient capture and delivery of non-fossil fuel energy, incremental progress toward packaging reduction, and the like), I’d argue that no one, regardless of industry, has anything to gain by using this term. Just don’t do it. Better yet, let the audience be the judge of an idea’s merits.


What to Say Instead

Show, don’t tell when it comes to describing something you think might be innovative. Instead of touting the installation of “innovative green building technologies,” why not describe a project with useful information, such as “LED lighting that uses less electricity” or “graywater systems that save water and prevent soil pollution?”



These certainly aren’t the only terms in the sustainability field that have lost some of their meaning and luster—and there will be many more to come. So how can you appear savvy when talking about exciting advances in environment and energy to potential employers and connections? The only solution for now is to be as specific and straightforward as possible. Not only can it save our eardrums from monotony—it might just make you sound smarter.


Photo of green business meeting courtesy of Shutterstock.