What is sustainability and the concept of sustainable development?

What is sustainability? This is a question that has gained relevance in recent years, due to the fact that the concept of sustainable development was recognised as the main development direction for the 21st century. As a consequence, companies all over the world have adapted their business models and processes to this criterion. However, for a successful adaptation, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of what it means and how it should be incorporated into the company’s core. 

Sustainable development: from the Brundtland Report to the Rio Conference

The concept of sustainable development first appeared 35 years ago. In 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development presented the report Our Common Future. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland was the Commission’s chairperson and was responsible for the publication of the report, which is why this document is known today as the “Brundtland Report”. The report warned about the negative impacts of economic development on the environment with the aim of finding possible solutions to the problems caused by industrialisation and population growth. Despite this, interest in protecting the planet had emerged a decade earlier. 

When it came to determining how to act on sustainability, the UN set up a space at the Earth Summits or climate summits. These bring together the members of the organisation, who try to reach binding agreements. The topics that are usually discussed range from the environment to climate change. All of them are related to what sustainability is.

The first one was held in Stockholm in 1972 and became a turning point in international politics. More than 113 UN member states attended the event, accompanied by UN experts. The event led to a declaration that pointed to the need for common criteria.

In fact, the Stockholm declaration was to be the basis for the future Kyoto Protocol in 1997. However, in 1992, another important summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. The 172 participating governments addressed a number of key issues. The growing scarcity of water or the search for alternative energy sources dominated the discussions.

One of the main achievements of the summit was the creation of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Both, over the years, would become two key pillars for the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability was clearly defined by Gro Harlem Brundtland in her report. In it, she warned of the consequences of economic development and globalisation for the planet. In response to this, she suggested different solutions to the problems they generate

She defined sustainable development as a satisfactory balance between human well-being and that of the Earth. In other words, humanity’s progress must not be in conflict with its home. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop a series of global policies to minimise negative impacts.

The three pillars of sustainable development

Sustainability has a strong ethical component implicit in it, as Bryan Norton makes clear in his book “Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management”. In this book, Norton points out that “sustainability is a fundamentally ethical concept raising questions regarding the value of nature, responsibilities to future generations and social justice“. This is why sustainability is divided into three fundamental pillars: environmental, social and economic. These three axes are interconnected and sustainable development can only be achieved if conditions are optimal for each pillar. Examples of sustainability for each pillar include: 

  • Environmental. Harnessing and making good use of natural resources, avoiding ecosystem pollution, promoting the human right to a healthy environment, protecting and maintaining biodiversity, etc.
  • Social. Fighting inequalities, respecting human rights, promoting a just green transition that leaves no one behind, empowering people, quality of life, etc.
  • Economic. Innovation and research that serves people, economic prosperity within the limits of our planet, decent employment conditions, etc.
Do you know how your company can ensure the three pillars of sustainability are respected? Read our Corporate Due Diligence guide.

The Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030

Beyond the definition of what sustainability is, the aim has been to crystallise this concept into concrete policies. The creation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda respond to this need. With the help of both tools, there is a broad framework for action and a point of reference.

The SDGs: what are they and how to strategically integrate them?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals subdivided into 169 points of great importance. The year 2030 has been set as the deadline for their achievement, hence the creation of the 2030 Agenda. They have been in place since 2015 and, thanks to them, the signatory countries have changed their growth patterns. Without these goals, it is impossible to understand what sustainability is.

The 17 goals are as follows:

  1. End poverty.
  2. End hunger.
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education.
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth.
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.
  10. Reduce inequality within and between countries.
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  14. Conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.

In developing them, a good strategy needs to be adopted. To begin with, it is essential to understand the SDGs and what sustainability is. This is followed by defining priorities to achieve them, designing specific targets and actions to achieve them. In addition, it is necessary to link them to business processes and create monitoring mechanisms.

The challenges of sustainable development

Despite the work that has been done to achieve sustainability, challenges remain. Understanding what sustainability is and its importance must be followed by tackling real challenges. To start with, obstacles and their magnitude need to be identified.

Global and complex challenges

Sustainability challenges are constantly changing. Climate change or the loss of biodiversity are some of the issues to be taken into account. Their impact is felt on a global scale through natural catastrophes or the disappearance of entire ecosystems. Moreover, its complexity is such that it requires action by numerous actors across the globe. With a multilateral approach to tackling challenges, it is possible to develop the right approaches at the right time and in the right situation.

2022 was marked by a number of problems, the consequences of which were severe. The erosion of social cohesion or extreme weather were the most relevant. For example, record summer temperatures were reached in Europe. In Spain alone, the temperature was 2.2°C above average.

How to achieve sustainable development

Achieving sustainable development is a key objective that is made up of different actions. Each leads to more efficient business processes. In this way, their impact on the environment is reduced, which makes them more sustainable.

What is sustainability in our current system?

The current system understands sustainability in a specific way. It is about reducing, as far as possible, the overexploitation of natural resources. This is achieved through various approaches, such as the circular and regenerative economy. By embracing these models, significant progress is made on the Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, extreme poverty has been reduced to 10 % of the world’s population. Although 2022 was the worst year in the last twenty years, progress is more than significant. In gender equality, women in national parliaments have increased slightly, from 22.4% in 2015 to 26.2% in 2022.

Just transition: what does it mean in practice?

Along with knowing what sustainability is, it is necessary to understand what a just transition means. It is a change in the way energy sources are produced and used. Its aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy security. In addition, it seeks to act in an equitable manner without leaving any social group behind.

The transition may include measures such as the promotion of renewable energy sources. Improving energy efficiency is another proposal, but nothing will be possible without the implementation of policies that ensure affordable and sustainable access for all.

Solutions to reach a sustainable development

  • Research viable alternatives to current unsustainable models. A good example is analysing the throw-away or lineal model of consumption and researching alternatives.
  • It is also important to consider local proposals and solutions. After all, they provide the best answers to specific problems. By combining them, it is possible to face global challenges.
  • It is essential to understand the relationship between humanity and nature. The knowledge gained can then be converted into concrete actions.

In short, by knowing what sustainability is, companies can change the way they produce. Do you want to use the SDGs and other sustainability standards to calculate your corporate impact? With APlanet Sustainability you can do this and much more. Get in touch with us.

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