What’s in a word? If that word is “sustainability,” what it is and what it stands for is becoming increasingly more relevant to a growing percentage of consumers.

For cattlemen, that means the word and its concept is also becoming more relevant. Problem is, how do you define it? That depends a great deal on your perspective. As Rufus Miles, originator of the now-famous Miles’ Law, aptly observed, “Where you stand” on an issue “depends on where you sit.”

For cattlemen, then, the definition of sustainability takes a definite economic slant. “The real definition of sustainable is to make a profit so you can reinvest in your people, reinvest in innovation and technology and be there next year,” says Dennis Stiffler, CEO of Mountain States Rosen, Golden, CO, a producer-owned, fully integrated lamb and veal company.

For consumers, however, the definition takes on environmental and social tones. The challenge for cattlemen becomes melding those three, not just into the DNA of their ranch culture but a story that resonates with consumers. “The reality is,”  says Rick Stott, executive vice president of business development with AgriBeef in Boise, ID, “that those people who are going to be successful in the next two decades recognize the value of communicating what they’re doing and communicating the positive aspects of our industry.”

Telling the sustainability story is important, Stott says, because a growing number of consumers are asking for it. AgriBeef has an initiative in which it provides beef to food banks in the Northwest. “We sat down with an organization in western Washington and they asked us, ‘Are you sustainable?’ Here’s an entity that needs protein; you’d think they really wouldn’t care how they get it or where it comes from. But they cared (because) they’ve got to address their other donors and their customers.”

The food bank was concerned that the beef was produced in an environmental and animal-friendly system. AgriBeef has a program called STAR, which stands for Sustainability, Total Quality, Animal Welfare and Responsibility, that answered the food bank’s concerns.

“I think one of the things missing in the discussion of sustainability is the economic aspects of it,” Stott says. “Every environmental decision we make has an economic value to it, because it’s basically using resources more efficiently.”

Stott says a recent study showed that of the top 25 environmental disasters, 23 occurred in countries with a communistic political system. That tells a powerful story about the impact of capitalism and economic incentives. “The ability we have to help our environment and the resources we use is substantial,” he says.

But are consumers hearing that message? More and more, they are, thanks to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. “The viral nature of communication today requires us to do things and provide communication and information on a real-time basis. That’s something that’s critically important going forward when we have such a huge, positive story,” Stott says. “But the fact is, we have to defend our products.”