Sustainability is a complex concept, subject to different interpretations and modifications throughout time. Sustainability was originally associated with the preservation of ecological systems. This appreciation of the importance of the environment, and of its limited capacity, is still a key pillar of the contemporary notion of sustainability, which has otherwise expanded.
Photo credit: Eleri Kyffin
Nowadays, sustainability is generally linked to sustainable development, which was famously defined in the Brundtland Report as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The report advocated sustainable development to address not only environmental problems, but also social justice and poverty.
Thus, sustainability can be understood as using resources in a considerate way, without compromising the ability of nature to replenish itself, and in an equitable way, so that everyone has a fair share.
What is your definition of sustainability?
Sustainability is a complex concept in constant evolution. What is your definition of sustainability? What do you think key features of sustainability are? Present your definition on this Padlet and compare with the definitions given by other visitors!
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a turning point in the global approach to sustainability, entrenching a commitment of all states to promote sustainable development. The Goals were set out in 2015 in a United Nations General Assembly resolution, supported by all member states, aimed at providing "a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future" (DSDG, no date). There are 17 SDG, to be achieved by 2030.
The 17 SDGs are: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, (10) Reduced Inequality, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life On Land, (16) Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, (17) Partnerships for the Goals.
Thus, the SDGs cover the three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. This is captured in the following representation of the SDGs:
Image credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University (CC BY 4.0)
Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) (no date). Sustainable Development Goals, DSDG. Available from https://sdgs.un.org/goals [Accessed 12 May 2022].
United Nations General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution A/RES/70/1. Available from https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E [Accessed: 14 July 2022].
Why do we need to care about sustainability?
As sustainability entails using resources in a considerate way, without compromising the ability of nature to replenish itself, and in an equitable way, so that everyone has a fair share, we believe that sustainability should be a key concern guiding our individual and collective action.
Do individuals and non-state actors also have a role in fulfilling the SDGs?
The SDGs originate from a commitment among states. Do we have a role in fulfilling them too? Yes. Within the SDGs framework, there is scope for individuals to act for sustainability in two main areas (Vialta, Betts and Gomez, 2018):
What is the role of students and staff in universities?
There are four main areas where universities can contribute to the SDGs: research, education, operations & governance, and external leadership (SDSN, 2017, p10).
Vilalta, J.M., Betts, A., Gomez, V., (2018). Higher Education’s Role in the 2030 Agenda: The Why and How of GUNi’s Commitment to the SDGs. In: Vilalta, J.M., Betts, A., Gomez, V., eds. Sustainable Development Goals: Actors and Implementation A Report from the International Conference, GUNi 2018. Barcelona, Spain. 18-19 September 2017. Barcelona: GUNi 10-14.Available from https://www.guninetwork.org/files/guni_sdgs_report_0.pdf [Accessed 12 July 2022].
SSDN (2017). Getting Started with the SDGs in Universities, SSDN. Available from https://ap-unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/University-SDG-Guide_web.pdf [Accessed 12 July 2022].
Sustainability, as preservation of ecological systems, is rooted in pre-industrial agricultural societies, which had to live in harmony with the land, avoiding over-exploitation. A failure to use natural resources sustainably would create an ecological crisis and consequent loss of livelihoods.
In fact, the first sustainability laws were created in the Late Middle Ages to deal with the ecological crisis of the almost complete deforestation of Europe. These laws, issued by local townships and principalities, promoted re-forestation and also took into consideration the needs of future generations (Bosselmann, 2016).
Photo credit: Eleri Kyffin
Industrial civilisation and detachment from sustainability
The modern industrial civilisation arguably departed from sustainability, favouring resource-intensive, short-term orientation, and absolute property rights. Such attitude has created multiple ecological crises (e.g. climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution).
Unlike the environmental crises occurred in the past, the recent crises cannot be dealt with at the local level exclusively. Due to globalisation, and the global consequences of practices that damage the environment, global action is needed.
Photo credit: John Cobb/Shutterstock, CC BY
The new era of sustainability
Consequently, in the last 50 years, sustainability has been gaining increasing recognition in world politics and international law. The Brundtland Report, released in 1984, marked a pivotal moment, defining sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and advocating for it to deal not only with environmental problems but also with social justice and poverty.
Since then, the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been subject to extensive study and theorisation, and have inspired new commitments and policies around the world. In terms of study and theorisation, it is important to point out that it is generally agreed that sustainability is not a purely ecological/environmental matter, but a multidimensional goal for societies which needs to be implemented in three areas: environmental, economic and social. In terms of commitments and policies, the SDGs represent a turning point in the global approach to sustainability.
Photo credit: "Sustainable Edition" by Scoobyfoo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Bosselmann, K., (2017). The principle of sustainability. London: Routledge.
Open educational resources books
Taylor & Francis Environment & Sustainability ebooks
Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy
BBC Sustainable Thinking (A playlist featuring new, challenging and even visionary thinking around climate change and sustainability)
Dollar Street (The site portrays everyday life on different income levels in different parts of the world using photos instead of data)
European Commission Climate Action
Global Resource Information Database (A UNEP partnership aimed at transforming data into information and knowledge to support the decision making process related to environmental issues)
SDG Academy (Free, open educational resources from the world’s leading experts on sustainable development)
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (the report assesses the impacts of climate change, looking at ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels. It also reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change.)
Mintel: Everyday sustainability - UK - 2022 (the report looks at the attitudes of UK consumers towards sustainability, and how covid-19 has affected them)
While the general concept of sustainability is seldom disputed, its practical application, especially as sustainable development and SDGs, is critiqued from different perspectives. Such views often carry ethical and practical insights that need to be considered. Some of the main critiques are summarised below.
Development and growth cannot be sustainable.
Some critiques argue that "sustainable development" may be an oxymoron and impossible to achieve (Spaiser et al, 2017; Verner, 2020). The Brundtland's definition of sustainable development presupposes that the needs of the present be met, but this, in fact, is not happening. Those who do not subscribe to the notion of sustainable development see a predicament: shall we aspire to more restraint or more growth? According to the limits to growth theory, environmental sustainability should have priority over development and growth: the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion need to be reduced substantially to avoid eventual civilisation collapse (Meadows et al, 1972; Turner, 2008; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2013). Indeed, it has been observed that consumer societies are socially and ecologically self-destructive (Blühdorn, 2017). On the other hand, Williams argues that development and growth should have priority over sustainability which he dubs as a "malign philosophy of misanthropy, low aspirations and restraint". He therefore calls to abandon sustainability in favour of a "reinstatement of the notions of development, progress, experimentation and ambition" (Williams, 2008, p13). As, adjusted for the purchasing power in each country, 85% of the world population live on less than $30 per day, it has been estimated that "a five-fold increase is a minimum estimate of the economic growth that is necessary to reduce global poverty substantially" (Roser, 2021) .
The environmental dimension of sustainability does not make justice of nature and our role within it.
Dawe and Ryan are unsatisfied with the "three-legged-stool model" as "with this model, humanity is once again placed outside the environment... this model fails to encourage us to recognize our place within the biosphere. Worse, it suggests that if we can only find an equal balance between our economic needs, our social well-being, and the environment, we can simply continue to tread our current path, business as usual" (Dawe and Ryan, 2003). Taking a step further, Monbiot writes beautifully that the concept of environment is reductionist and does not suffice to describe life 's wonders (Monbiot, 2017).
The social dimension of sustainability is not given due weight
There is little consensus on what the social dimension of sustainability really entails, and this dimension has generally been neglected (Janker and Mann, 2020; Casula Vifell and Soneryd, 2012; Colantonio, 2009).
Sustainability masks and neuters complex issues.
Sustainability can be a mantra used uncritically and pre-empting moral discussion (Williams, 2008; Newton and Freyfogle, 2005). The model tends to gloss over potent trade-offs within sustainable development. For example, in developed countries, should we buy local (reducing food miles) or import from developing countries (supporting the poor who earn their living from agriculture)(Chi, MacGregor and King, 2009; Berg 2020)? Being vague, sustainability is difficult to measure and put in practice (Phillis and Andriantiatsaholiniaina, 2001). Such malleability is used by corporations in their "greenwashing" PR campaign, that is, disguising poor environmental performance with positive communication about environmental performance (Delmas and Burbano 2011, p65; de Freiras Netto et al, 2020). Sustainability can be even manipulated into "corporate oxymorons" such as sustainable mining (Benson and Kirsch, 2010). In fact, how green is it to produce and and consume sustainable products? Should we not simply aim to reduce consumption (Kepner and Cole, 2013; )? On the other hand, the quantification of the SDGs through indicators has been criticised as selective and reductionist, considering that much cannot be quantified (Balil Swain, 2018; Mair et al, 2018). Numbers do not present the "stories behind the data" (Cheney, 2018).
What we make of this
Sustainability is a complex, multidimensional concept. Like all aspirations, its realisation is not devoid of challenges, conflicts, dilemmas and trade-offs. We should not sweep these problems under the carpet, espousing a dogmatic notion of sustainability. We believe that sustainability should be a key factor influencing our decisions, and such decisions should take into consideration environmental, economic, social, ethical, cultural and historical issues. In fact, we believe that this is the spirit of sustainability - to consider such different dimensions and consequences of our actions.
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Berg, C. (2020). Sustainable Action. Overcoming The Barriers. Routledge.
Blühdorn (2017). "Post-capitalism, post-growth, post-consumerism? Eco-political hopes beyond sustainability". Global Discourse, 7(1), 42–61.
Delmas, M., and Burbano, V. (2011). The drivers of greenwashing. Calif Manag Rev 54(1):64–87
Vifell, A.C and Soneryd, L. (2012). "Organizing Matters: How the 'Social Dimension' Gets Lost in Sustainability Projects." Sustainable Development 20(1), 18-27.
Cheney, C. (2018). The two big problems with SDG data. Devex, 27 September 2018. Available from https://www.devex.com/news/the-two-big-problems-with-sdg-data-93509 [Accessed 19 July 2022]
Chi, K.R., MacGregor, L. and King, R (2009). Fair Miles: Recharting the food miles map. IIED/Oxfam.
Colantonio, Andrea (2009). Social sustainability: a review and critique of traditional versus emerging themes and assessment methods. In: Horner, M., Price, A., Bebbington, J. and Emmanuel, R., (eds.) Sue-Mot Conference 2009: Second International Conference on Whole Life Urban Sustainability and Its Assessment: Loughborough University, Loughborough, 865-885.
Dawe, N.K., and Ryan, K.L. (2003). The Faulty Three-Legged-Stool Model of Sustainable Development. Conservation Biology, 17(5), 1458-1460.
de Freitas Netto et al (2020). Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Environmental Sciences Europe, 32(19).
Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H. (2013). Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? In Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Available from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2012.2845
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Mair S et al (2018). A Critical Review of the Role of Indicators in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. In: Leal Filho W (Ed.), Handbook of sustainability science and research. World Sustainability Series. Springer, Cham: 41-56.
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