Welcome to this first blog post in our series Sustainable Business in which we define sustainability and sustainable development as well as give a small glimpse into their history. We will also suggest some high-quality learning options if you are seriously interested in this important topic.
What Sustainability Is Not
Sustainability is not:
- A meaningless buzz word to throw around in an attempt to sound cool, without following up with action.
- A fad (but it is a trend): fads are the “trendy” stuff that rises to the sky like firework and either fails dramatically or goes away so quietly that nobody remembers it after a while (but objects end up in attics or landfills), whereas trends visualise statistical and other patterns. Sustainable development is a trend.
- “Activism, ugh!”, the way arrogant people look down on others, who advocate for some type of change, but can be if done incorrectly.
- A chance to virtue signal how “forward” a person or organisation (business, interest group, clique) is, but can be if done incorrectly, for example through greenwashing.
And much more.
What Sustainability Is
- A word with precise meaning.
- A social (human-made) construct.
- Well documented and deeply invested in for decades already by global policy-makers.
- Studied in universities as an interdisciplinary field.
- A concept, which brings together three dimensions: environmental, economic and social.
And much more.
Where It Began
Sustainability and sustainable development were formally defined in a report released in 1987 called “Our Common Future”, also referred to as the Brundtland Report.
This piece of work was put together by World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which was established in 1983 by the United Nations General Assembly. WCED, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, dissolved the same year as the report was finalised.
Today there is a Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).
Defining Sustainability And Sustainable Development
Sustainable, sustainability and sustainable development were used interchangeably in the report “Our Common Future”.
Sustainable development was described as:
“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
As a concept is is so broad that in order to give a well-rounded introduction to the topic, editors Tom Theis and Jonathan Tomkin had to bring together 21 researchers to cover the basics in their “Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation” (available for free here).
You can also study with Tomkin on Coursera in his course “Introduction to Sustainability“. It has great reviews and in my opinion is a good place to begin. If you don’t need a certificate, you can audit the course for free, which means you have access to all course material but will not be graded. In case you are thinking it is yet another source that tells us not to buy anything, Tomkin does state without bias that consumption is not only bad, and I most certainly agree with his arguments.
Just because some of us throw around the word sustainability like imprecise confetti, does not mean that its meaning is vague. Policy-makers refer to it in a specific context and the bureaucratic machineries of our collective societies are hopefully implementing regulations and efforts in as precise a manner.
As leaders of today and tomorrow, I encourage us all to strive for a greater understanding of the environmental dimension of sustainable development in particular.
When practicing business, we must take care to follow this same path of exact vocabulary and high level of ambition with regard to our own sustainable business strategy as well as sustainable marketing. These latter two concepts are equally precise, and already taught in forward-thinking business schools.
If business leaders in the field still refer to the sole purpose of a firm being to create profit for its shareholders, this simply is not true. Times are changing with sustainable marketing leading the way. The new generations of leaders are hopefully more well-rounded in their (our) realisation that business does not happen in vacuum, but as part of the closed ecological system that Earth is.
In order to secure the future of Earth, we therefore must learn how to let go of mindless consumption, the creation of low-quality products, and question our current habits in addition to accepting the possible financial consequence in business: less profit until we adjust to the new ways. As consumers on the other hand, we may also have to get used to paying more for better quality, but less absolute amounts of stuff. The situation concerns everyone.
This blog post is the first in our beginner-level series Sustainable Business on sustainable development, sustainable business strategy and sustainable marketing.
Photo credit: William Warby.