Contract language: From unsustainable jargon to clear sustainability communication (2024-2026)


Bad language use makes contracts fail

When a company orders goods and services that are produced in a supply chain, they make contracts and issue purchase orders which contain clauses and Codes of Conduct related to sustainability requirements. These clauses and requirements travel along the supply chain: the buyer expects all supply chain parties to follow them. However, the language used in these documents is typically so complex and vague that the contents – such as environmental and human rights responsibilities – are completely incomprehensible for most people.

To be effective and to be fair, contractual clauses should be comprehensible for all of the parties involved, for instance, all of the people working along a supply chain. Overly complicated and abstract language use, therefore, is a factor in the failure of many current contractual practices. This is especially detrimental to effective corporate sustainability and human rights due diligence: in current contract language practices, the responsibility of understanding falls on the more vulnerable party.

JARGONFREE’s Contract Language project examines what contracts should be like in terms of language, content and design so that all involved would understand their rights and obligations. Our research focuses on corporate sustainability due diligence requirements in supply chains, especially supply and procurement contracts and related Codes of Conduct.


Sustainabilitese or genuinely sustainable contracts and communication?

We refer to complex and vague contract language use as sustainabilitese: it is overly abstract and obscure jargon that only experts can understand. We examine the sustainabilitese used in contracts and codes of conduct as its own register; a form of language use typical of the text types included in the material. Our goal is to describe the characteristics of this language use and to show what kind of language choices undermine or promote the realization of sustainability goals. Examining contracts and legal requirements through the lens of linguistics and communication opens up a brand new perspective on procurement and contracting practices as part of sustainable business operations.

Our project develops plain language and legal design solutions that can facilitate and democratize communication along the supply chain. We aim to create solutions that would clarify sustainability requirements, express them in actionable language and give the more vulnerable contract parties the dignity of comprehending what their rights and obligations are, and hence remedy power imbalances.


Data, research questions and outcomes

We examine supply and procurement contracts and the related codes of conduct, as well as model clauses and texts derived from sustainability regulation. In addition, we interview key personnel of companies (such as business and procurement managers, sustainability managers, contract and commercial managers and lawyers drafting contracts) regarding the sustainability of contracts and contract practices.

Our research questions are:

    • What kind of features does sustainabilitese have as a register? What type of linguistic means could be used to get rid of sustainabilitese?
    • How are sustainable business and the growing body of sustainability regulation currently reflected in codes of conduct and procurement contracts? How should the legal and operational requirements be expressed in these documents, so that they can be translated into concrete operating instructions and become part of the everyday activities of organizations and businesses?
    • How do the interviewed company representatives think that sustainability regulation, supply and procurement contracts and codes of conduct support sustainable business? Do they recognize the possibilities of contracts and codes of conduct as promoters of sustainability?
    • What kind of text templates, clause libraries, design patterns and tools do companies currently use or could use to achieve the sustainability goals of their contracts? How can artificial intelligence help companies plan, design and communicate their contracts in a more responsible and sustainable way?

We develop concrete communication tools that companies can use to improve their contract communication and thus promote the realization of sustainability goals in their supply chains. We will develop a toolkit for sustainable contracting that includes:

  • ”User guides for sustainability requirements”, i.e. help in putting sustainability regulation, contracts and Codes of Conduct into practice
  • Training and coaching to change mindsets and attitudes – concrete guidance for different situations
  • Design materials that support the cognitive accessibility of the content, especially for non-expert readers: summaries, headings, diagrams and other design patterns (e.g. layout and layering techniques)