The word “sustainability” has undergone considerable conceptual change in recent years, and is probably still evolving. It is important for an organisation, whether private or public, to define sustainability for its own purposes before committing to going down the sustainability path. Some historical background may be useful.
In 1962 Rachel Carson published a book Silent Spring, which is often credited as serving as the inspiration and source of a growing public consciousness regarding the natural environment. It heralded the start of the popular environmental movement, although environmental concerns had been publicly expressed since the mid-1800s, when the first national park was declared (Yellowstone in 1872), the second being Royal National Park south of Sydney in 1879.
In 1972 the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth forecast dire environmental consequences from current economic growth patterns. The 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the first international gathering to consider a full range of global environmental issues, resulted in the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Two major accidents, the 1984 leak of methyl isocyanide at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal (India), and the 1986 Sandoz chemical spill in Switzerland, increased public scrutiny of corporate behaviour. This followed several notable incidents in the previous two decades.
In 1987 the publication of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) by the World Commission on Environment and Development, created in December 1983 by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, was the first time “sustainable development” was established as a concept for the future management of the world’s resources. This term has since been enshrined in international treaties and protocols, national and regional legislation, agreements, court decisions, corporate environmental policies and the titles of innumerable publications, meetings, conferences and training programs around the world.
The Bruntland Report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development evolved from desires to have Australia respond to the calls for action in the Brundtland Report. For some reason, presumably of ideology, Australia chose to put the word “ecologically” in front of the term “sustainable development” used by Brundtland. Australia appears to be the only country in the world to have adopted “ecologically sustainable development”, and it obviously has far-reaching implications for industry. The Australian government has adopted the following definition of ecologically sustainable development: “using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased”.
‘Sustainable Development’ and ‘Sustainability’ are commonly used interchangeably, however they are defined differently. There are many definitions or explanations of both terms. Sustainability is generally used in the context of addressing social, economic, and environmental issues (the “triple bottom line”). At its core, sustainability requires development that can be continued (or “sustained”) indefinitely, while sustainable development is the process by which we move towards sustainability. Sustainability can thus be seen as the destination, while sustainable development is the journey that takes us there. The two are inseparable.
So how can a company or government agency contribute to “sustainability”? In reality no one organisation can achieve sustainability in isolation. However, the goal is to grow a resilient organisation – Business resilience is defined as the ability an organisation has to quickly adapt to disruptions while maintaining continuous business operations and safeguarding people, assets and overall brand equity.
There is a lot of guidance available from many organisations worldwide, however these may create confusion as to what is the correct path to follow, rather than provide a solution. One pathway is to embrace the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by 193 states at the United Nations in September 2015. The 17 goals and 169 targets lay out a path to 2030 to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect the planet. For further information see the Sustainable Development Goals.
Graham A Brown & Associates has a team of qualified and experienced sustainability consultants who can assist an organisation to identify the most effective methodology to achieve that organisation’s sustainability goals. This may include:
The use of our mentoring program could facilitate an organisation’s “sustainability coordinator/officer/manager” to achieve the targets set by management.