What is sustainability?

If one compares today’s world with how it was twenty or thirty years ago it is not recognizable anymore and it seems unbelievable how fast things have been developing in these past few decades. We live in a world driven by constant changes and improvements, new inventions, trends and developments. There is one important current trend that we come across more and more frequently these days, probably as a result of this fast changing world: sustainability. But what exactly is sustainability and what does this term actually mean?

The first time sustainability was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) as a ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Back then, sustainability only focused on protecting the environment. Nowadays, though, economic and social aspects also come into play since in many cases it is impossible to sustain the natural environment without taking social and economic considerations into account. This is why the following definition has been introduced: ‘Sustainability refers to the long-term maintenance of systems according to environmental, economic and social considerations’ (Crane & Matten, 2007).

This definition is based on an approach towards sustainability taken by John Elkington, the director of the “SustainAbility” strategy consultancy in 1998. He re-engineered the whole concept of sustainability by adding two aspects (social and economic) and coining the term of the ‘triple bottom line’ also known as the three E’s (environmental protection, economic prosperity and social equity).

Triple-Earth11
Source: www.maricopa.edu

In my view, sustainability is one of the most essential trends and developments that should concern all of us. In the past decades, economic growth, social development, human rights, peace and security have started to improve in some parts of the world, whereas neither the protection of the environment nor social equity have been taken into consideration for way too long. By now, however, it has become clear that the environment, natural resources and also the social inequity are subject to dramatic stresses which may even increase significantly in the coming years. More and more people realize that something has to change in our (consumer) behavior and the way we live together and that it simply cannot continue like this.

Some of us are convinced that these stresses are consequences of human’s willful ignorance of the environment’s importance, the blindness of its exploitation and destruction as well as the insensibility of the unfair social conditions around the planet. One theory takes it as far that these continuously growing ‘stresses hinder and even threaten economic growth, social development, peace and security’ (Dernbach, 2002). Though, the good news is that this theory suggests there is a way to avoid the worst, since a sustainable development, which certainly is not an easy way to go, ‘provides a powerful and realistic basis to be hopeful about the future’ (Dernbach, 2002). By taking the environmental and social risks we face very seriously, and by confronting these problems directly, we might be able to turn these risks into opportunities and thus improve human quality of life in all parts of the world.

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