‘Zombie’, ‘Finite’, ‘Planet Negative’: Your favourite alternatives to ‘brown’ assets

The latest RI Survey results are in

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Thank you to everyone who responded to our survey last month on which word should replace ‘brown’ when describing unsustainable assets. We received well over 100 responses. For anyone who missed the survey’s launch and the rationale for doing it, you can read the explanation here.

Firstly, it is important to note that not everybody believes replacing the word ‘brown’ is the right thing to do. One respondent said that “imputing racial connotations to terms like this risks undermining genuine concerns of racism and some people of colour find this politicisation of ‘brown’ in this context concerning and offensive”.

(Others accused us of participating in “fascist mind control”, and told us to “get off [our] butts… and fight to reduce the number of mono-parental families” instead.)

The second important thing to note is that there is no stand-out ‘favourite’ for describing these assets – readers were as opposed to some options as they were in favour of others, and basically everyone disagreed with each other on something. And there were many, many nominations for words not on our shortlist.

“Just call unsustainable assets 'unsustainable assets',” said Dan Neale at the World Benchmarking Alliance. “Anyone interested in a sustainable future knows they are incompatible. The rest of the terms are either vague (colours), subjective (significantly harmful to whom/what) or confusing (carbon intensive – where in their scope 1-3?) etc.”

Unsustainable was a popular option, securing 10.4% of nominations.

Nonresilient: “I like this because it captures in a very broad way assets, businesses and entire economic sectors. If what we want is an economic transition, we can't just say what we want to transition to–we also have to say what we're transitioning from. Placing this in the context of moving from Non-resilient companies and industries to some degree of Resiliency captures this. Plus, it's only one word!” – Bob Buhr, Imperial College

Others agreed with Neale about not using colours. “I would stop using a colour to describe ‘unsustainable’ activities for the simple reason that using clear language like ‘harmful’ ‘polluting’ ‘intensive’ in regulation and investments, as well as media, might contribute to ‘shaming’ the fossil fuel industry more than it currently is,” said one person. 

But ‘red’ got a lot of backing for its ability to convey an immediate sense of danger and/or bad financial decision making (being ‘in the red’), as well as working well with ‘green’ to create a traffic light system for assets. It garnered 11.2% of nominations overall.

It was pointed out by many of you that ‘red’ can be offensive to indigenous people, as well as having political connotations. To avoid those, Ruben Langbroek at GRESB suggested ‘maroon’ instead – “as in ‘marooned’, similar to ‘stranded’”. And RI’s very own Tony Hay nominated ‘rusty assets’ as an alternative, because it “implies obsolescence, is synonymous with old industries such as the ‘rust belt’ and isn't associated with any ethical groups or countries' flags”.

Grey also got a lot of backing, with one reader calling it “perfect” for reflecting “outdated fossil industries, high (smoky?) emissions, etc. It's not a slight on older generations, though it further removes the 'shine' from propping-up dying, carbon-intensive sectors”.

‘Smoky’ itself got a nomination, because it “gets over the impression of polluted and dirty, but also ‘in a puff of smoke’ – short term, rather than looking far ahead”.

There were lots of suggestions beyond colour. Here are some more of our favourite nominations:

Toxic “Denoting or relating to debt which has a high risk of default. This term is already part of the financial lingo. Hence can be easily expanded to all assets that exhibit unsustainable traits, traits which are toxic for people, planet & profit.” – Thomas Schumann, Manager of Thomas Schumann Capital

Planet Negative – Anonymous

Zombie – Amy Domini, Founder, Domini Impact Investing

Outliers “Polluting assets that are detached from global energy systems designed to meet goals of the Paris Agreement” – Tim Williamson, organisation unknown

Traditional Assets “The term makes you think of something outdated and a thing of the past. The likes of coal and oil were vital during the industrial revolution in the UK as well as the rapid expansion of the US and other nations. However, as time has passed and we look further forward, it is important for us to recognise that we have the capabilities of generating clean and renewable energy and therefore do not require the use of traditional assets as much as we think we do.” – Anonymous

Finite “In the sense that the resource is finite and also that the finance is unsustained and has a finite life”– Anonymous

Old Economy Assets – Anonymous

Dirty “Let us have the courage to say what it is and choose a term that reflects the impact of these assets on the planet” – Anonymous (but nominated by lots of people)