A beginner’s guide to sustainabilityPosted by on Mar 29, 2012
Twenty-five years after the Brundtland Commission coined the definition of sustainable development, “sustainability” has finally become a buzzword. But, although there is a lot of interest in sustainability, the concept is not very well understood. Even the supposed definition – “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” seems a bit circular and not easily understood.
This is a two-part blog. The first part offers a working definition of sustainability, and how it might be interpreted at the national level, in companies, by communities, by consumers, and so on. The second shall offer a short guide to books and reports which are good starting points for those who want to know more.
Perhaps one problem with the Brundtland Commission’s definition is that it references needs without defining what those are. In other words, it set the scene for endless argument over which needs matter most. However, over time we have come to understand that we do know something about needs – and that humans and societies on earth have specific economic, social and environmental needs. As such, sustainability is that state of being in which meeting these needs actually reinforces the durability and vibrancy of the system, or the ultimate virtuous circle.
Thus, at the very basic level, sustainable development can be seen as the process which, over time, produces broad-based economic advancement and social progress, while remaining within environmental constraints and the planet’s carrying capacity.
This is the “definition” which underpins the Fung Global Institute's own research project on Asia’s sustainable development. In a word, we are trying to understand how Asia can achieve a better balance between fulfilling its environment, social and economic needs in order to achieve better outcomes in all three dimensions. Over the past quarter century, Asia has been very successful in economic terms, somewhat successful in social terms, and less successful in environmental terms. The problem is that durability and stability require satisfying all three areas.
However, sustainable development is not just something to be carried out by nations and global policymakers. Businesses and consumers play key roles – as producers, consumers and decision-makers. So what is a sustainable company?
Re-interpreting the definition above, sustainability at the corporate level suggests a set of practices which generate economic returns, support social progress, and account for its environmental impacts, for instance by using natural resources more efficiently. Such practices align with the “triple bottom line”, or people, planet, profit. Indeed, the next great shift in corporate reporting is the integration of environmental and social factors into a company’s profit and loss account.
Of course, different companies might interpret sustainability differently, and they embody a very democratic aspect of sustainability. Nothing is written in stone, and we are learning as we go along, and hopefully the lessons we learn will improve our understanding of what we have to do to make this work.
Finally, what does sustainability mean for the individual consumer? It’s that set of daily practices and life choices which enable you to make your own living (economically and financially) while contributing positively to society (giving back) while doing your best to protect the environment and natural resources so that others who come after us might enjoy it as well.
On that note, don’t forget that Earth Hour is this Saturday. Wherever you are, on Saturday 31 March, from 8:30-9:30 pm, please think about your environmental and social impact, and act accordingly.
And please return in a few days for part two’s “readers’ guide to sustainability”.