What is Sustainability?
The term sustainability is broadly used to indicate programs, initiatives, and actions aimed at the preservation of a particular resource. The concept of sustainable development was introduced in 1972 by George P. Mitchell, recognized as the father of sustainability. Its initial major international acknowledgment occurred at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.
This visionary approach emphasized the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental issues. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, submitted the report titled “Our Common Future” to the United Nations, providing a defining definition of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Presently, nearly 140 developing countries are exploring ways to meet their development needs, with the imperative to address climate change threats and ensure that today’s development efforts do not adversely impact future generations.
Within business and policy contexts, the focus is on preventing the depletion of natural or physical resources to ensure their availability for the long term. Efforts to foster sustainability aim to establish practices that contribute to the preservation of resources, allowing for their sustained use without compromising the well-being of future generations.
Pillars of Sustainability
Experts often describe sustainability as having three dimensions (or pillars) which are environmental, economic, and social. Many publications have emphasized the environmental dimensions in recent years. The Brundtland report in 1987 was the first to discuss these pillars of sustainability that make up the core framework for understanding sustainability.
Various Terms of Sustainability
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were born at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political, and economic challenges facing our world.
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) is often simply called “sustainability.” In a business context, sustainability is about the company’s business model, i.e. how its products and services contribute to sustainable development.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) usually refers to a company’s commitment to practice environmental and social sustainability and to be good stewards of the environment and the social landscapes in which they operate.
Sustainability Policy in the EU
In general, sustainability policy in the EU aims to protect, conserve, and enhance the EU’s natural capital; turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy; and safeguard EU citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing.
Sustainability Policy in the US
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) keeps workplaces safe for all employees. The Clean Air Act guarantees a commitment to safe, breathable air. Other environmental sustainability laws in the U.S. include the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, and Lacey Act.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 committed the United States to sustainability, declaring it a national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony”, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future. The U.S. ranked 39th out of 166 countries in a 2023 review of national efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The Main Types of Sustainability
Broadly speaking the three main types of sustainability are economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability.
Economic sustainability refers to practices that support long-term economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community. Also refers to a company’s ability to continue its operations over the long term by applying various strategies for employing existing resources optimally so that a responsible and beneficial balance can be achieved. To be economically sustainable, a company must be able to ensure that it will have adequate resources, workers, and consumers for its products into the distant future. For sustainable economies, Governments must ensure individual and social autonomy and equity, maintain competitive markets, create, and maintain stable values of currency. Government is an expression of culture in that it reflects the ethical or moral values of the society which forms it.
Importance of Economic Sustainability
Creating the infrastructure for economic sustainability is a complex process that involves the full cooperation of both the private and public sectors. On the individual level, however, retail investors can direct their money toward companies whose values and practices align with their own.
The goals of economic sustainability include:
- The longevity of the global economy
- The preservation of human life
- Unrealized discoveries
1. The longevity of the global economy: The worldwide reliance on unsustainable practices has a necessary end date since the planet’s natural resources are not infinite. Developing new processes and investing in different resources is essential for any commercial activity to continue for the long haul.
2. The preservation of human life: Climate change caused by the overuse of fossil fuels has created a dire situation for Earth and humans’ ability to inhabit it. By trying to limit energy consumption and adjusting the approach to food production, humans can preserve the planet for posterity.
3. Unrealized discoveries: The natural environment has long been a source of discovery and innovation. Therefore, the constant degradation of natural surroundings jeopardizes the opportunity to unearth new compounds and processes that could serve as the basis for new products or other economic benefits.
How Sustainability Can Reduce Economic Expenditure
Factors influencing economic sustainability include the responsible management of resources, capacity for efficiency and innovation of economic systems and enterprises, and financial stability at the macro level.
Recycling and waste reduction programs can have quick and effective impacts on a local agency’s budget. Waste reduction and reuse can also reduce business costs for disposal, provide new sources of materials for the construction, manufacturing, and processing industries, and create local jobs.
Environmental sustainability is the ability to maintain an ecological balance in our planet’s natural environment and conserve natural resources to support the well-being of current and future generations. Environmental sustainability also promotes a better economy where there is little waste and pollution, fewer emissions, more jobs, and a better distribution of wealth.
Ecological integrity, social equity, economic efficiency, and intergenerational equity are the four principles of environmental sustainability that provide a comprehensive framework for addressing our planet’s complex challenges.
Importance of Environmental Sustainability
Sustainability as a concept recognizes that the environment is an exhaustible resource. Therefore, it is important to use the environment and its resources rationally and protect it for the good of the Earth, our environment, humanity, and all living things. Sustainable living practices not only help reduce pollution but also conserve natural resources like water and energy. Businesses and people who care about sustainability are also less likely to encroach upon the natural habitats of wild animals, thus helping protect the biodiversity of our planet.
Factors that affect environmental sustainability:
- Climate change
- Alternative energy or renewable energy
- Carbon offsetting
- Environmental protection
- Pollution or contamination
- Impact or effect or influence
- Cost or price or expense or money or financial
- Fossil fuels or coal or oil or gas
Social sustainability is a process for creating sustainable successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places where they live and work. Social sustainability can also be defined as specifying and managing both positive and negative impacts of systems, processes, organizations, and activities on people and social life. Social sustainability takes into consideration human welfare, rights, and liberties; workplace atmosphere, etc.
The three factors of social sustainability are:
- Social equity and inclusion
- Community engagement and participation
- Access to basic services and resources
Examples of social sustainability issues include resolving racism and discrimination issues in educational institutions, workplaces, and social communities.
Sustainability has evolved into a globally recognized concept emphasizing the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental issues. As evident in EU or US sustainability policies, commitment to environmental protection and resource conservation is becoming more important. In our next article, we will explore the challenges sustainability presents to manufacturers and how they can begin to integrate sustainability best practices into their development.