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The language of sustainability – Does climate action speak louder than plastic words?

In honour of Plastic Free July, you may have noticed our social media turned a lovely shade of green (spiritually and semi-physically speaking). Well, in true eco-fashion, allow us to reuse and recycle the conservation conversation.

Coming to ‘terms’ with climate change

On a strictly linguistic level, climate change has afforded us reams of terminology. The first known use of the now ubiquitous term ‘eco-friendly’ was in 1989, long before sustainability bled into our household lexicon. Heck, plastic’ is derived from the Latin plasticus and the Greek plastikos, meaning ‘capable of shaping or moulding’ and dating back to the 1600s. It is only more recently that the floodgates opened; with generation ‘woke’ with their ‘keep cups’, ‘zero-waste’ shopping and the ‘war on plastic’ breathing new life into our linguistic ecosystem.

There’s no question of if we’re talking about climate change, but how. And as we know words have the power to change the world (and do – think of some of our great speeches), we must begin to look more carefully at our language footprint and how our attitudes can be greened or contravened by the words we use.

(Global) warming up to the idea

Language is our most powerful weapon. Words are so malleable and anfractuous that, in the wrong hands, they can be abused. The English language is fortunate enough (depending who you ask) not to have an official body that regulates its usage, but the Oxford English Dictionary is as close as we can get. So, it is telling that such a status symbol opted for ‘climate emergency’ as their Word of the Year for 2019. Not ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’, specifically ‘climate emergency’. The OED stated that the decision was a ‘conscious push towards language of immediacy and urgency’. Similarly, The Guardian newspaper have opted for the same term in lieu of ‘climate change’, which in their words is ‘no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation’.

With this in mind, a similar linguistic catalyst has developed around ‘language pollution’ and, most famously, ‘greenwashing’: ‘the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound.’ The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined as far back as the 1980s (conveniently the same decade as ‘eco-friendly), but the practice went seemingly unpoliced until 2014, when an ISO standard on ‘self-declared environmental claims’ was instated to prevent the use of unsubstantiated ‘green’ buzzwords in marketing.

While we like to think organisations are no longer brazen enough to simply stick an ‘eco-friendly’ sticker where it doesn’t belong, H&M’s sustainability claims were investigated as recently as 2019 in Norway. So, it would seem linguistic subtleties around something as big as the climate crisis can still be bent in peculiar ways (even if, much like our pal plastic, they do eventually snap). So, are we doing enough? And, if not, what can be done to offset it?

Will it all come out in the wash?

To its credit, the increasingly ‘unfashionable’ term ‘global warming’ at least shone a light on the fact that this language tailoring is an international responsibility, and therefore, very much a translator’s business. But do these ‘plastic words’ exist and carry the same weight in all languages? Given the French term ‘écoblanchiment’ we know ‘greenwashing’ translates, at least. But would use of the English word ‘green’, for instance, be considered ‘greenwashing’ if used in a French product and vice versa, or does its exoticism wash out the… washing? Which leads us to the question: ethically speaking, should we take a ripe green leaf out of The Guardian’s book (or newspaper, as the case may be) and translate ‘changement climatique’ as ‘climate emergency’?

Translators are no strangers to language politics – we’ve seen it all before with inclusive genderless language. We’re willing to bet this could be the next philological frontier.


By Amy Reid, WIT Account Manager


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