Sustainabilty: Conceptual Approaches

Sustainability – From Principle To Practice

World Climate Conference on Bali – Dancers in front of the globe; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpa Sustainability is a shifting concept that is frequently used in an arbitrary manner. In many cases, 'sustainable' is also used merely as a synonym for 'lasting'. But what actually lies behind the principle of sustainability?

Origins of sustainability

The word 'sustainability' was originally used in forestry. At the beginning of the 18th century, the continued existence of silver mining, Saxony's economic backbone, was endangered due to an acute scarcity of wood. Entire forests had been devoured for the purpose of excavation, for mining the ore andfor the charcoal-fired smelting furnaces.

The then Inspector General of Mines, von Carlowitz, criticized the attitude of his time for being oriented to short-term profits, arguing that fast profits destroy prosperity. Von Carlowitz therefore demanded that wood be treated with "circumspection", the aim being to ensure that only as much wood was logged as could grow back in the same time.

The term 'sustainability' or 'sustainable development' is used today to describe this approach to forest management aimed at ensuring an adequate, sustainable supply of timber for future generations. Then, as now, the sustainability idea was born of a crisis. It became popular in the 70s, when the Club of Rome published its report pointing to the global "limits to growth".

Definition of sustainability by the Brundtland Commission

The concept of sustainability received worldwide recognition as a result of a report that was published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland Commission) and entitled "Our Common Future". The commission, chaired by Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, developed today's generally accepted definition of sustainability, stating that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Basically, therefore, it is a question of inter-generational equity. Sustainability demands that we pass on to our children a world that is virtually no worse than the one we inherited. Or, to put it differently: we should live off the 'interest' and leave the 'capital' untouched.

History of sustainability; Copyright: picture-alliance/ obs/Holzabsatzfonds

Rio Earth Summit and three-pillar sustainability model

In 1992, the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro. The conference focussed on the question of the relationship between environmental and developmental goals. Both the Rio Declaration and, above all, Agenda 21 were adopted at this conference, which was attended by approximately 10,000 delegates. Agenda 21 is an action programme for global sustainable development that made the concept of sustainability a formal political principle. It was now recognized that global environmental protection is only possible if economic and social aspects are also taken into consideration.

The EU formulated the three pillars of sustainability at its Copenhagen Summit and with the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1997. Known as the "three-pillar model of sustainability", the principle states that sustainability not only comprises the natural heritage we pass on to the next generation but also the economic achievements and social institutions of our society, such as democratic political participation or peaceful conflict resolution. Sustainable development thus rests on an ecological, an economic and a social pillar. If one of the pillars gives way, the 'sustainability building' will collapse.

Links between the three pillars of sustainability

United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali - World Climate Day; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaThe question of when we can speak of a positive sustainable development is unanswered. Do all three sustainability areas have to demonstrate a positive development or is it sufficient if one pillar does so? The question of the relationship between the three basic pillars of sustainability is especially controversial. Is mutual substitution, for instance, permissible with respect to the three sustainability dimensions? Might a high level of economic growth compensate for a deterioration in environmental quality?

If we allow the three pillars to offset one another, we speak of 'weak' sustainability, in the opposite case of 'strong' sustainability. As the result of the growing pressure on the environment and increased scarcity of natural resources, however, sustainability is increasingly understood so as to mean that the environment is not only on a par with the other two pillars but also the basis of sustainability. Economic and social development can only take place if fundamental ecological functions are secured.

Sustainability strategies for establishing the sustainability principle in politics and society

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg in 2002, ten years after the Rio Earth Summit. Its goal was to assess the progress made since Rio in terms of sustainable development. The findings were, however, disillusioning. In most countries of the world, the situation for the environment and population had even deteriorated.

A resolution was taken to adopt an agenda with five key areas: by 2015, the share of the population without access to basic sanitary facilities is to be halved, negative impacts on human health minimized, the decline in global fish stocks brought to a halt, the loss of biodiversity arrested and national sustainability strategies developed.

As early as 2001, the EU adopted its own sustainability strategy in Göteborg, with the goal of supplementing the Lisbon strategy, which addresses the economic development of the EU. Climate change and clean energy, public health, demographic trends and migration, the management of natural resources and global poverty and development are the focal areas of the strategy.

Almost all EU member states have now adopted their own sustainability strategy. In 2002, Germany launched a national sustainability strategy and a number of German states, e.g. Schleswig-Holstein, Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, have also begun to establish the principle of sustainability more firmly via a sustainability initiative.

In many cases, one characteristic feature of sustainability strategies is the close involvement of social players such as associations, environmental organisations, societies and municipal authorities, the underlying idea being that sustainable development cannot be prescribed by law but that all players and agents must contribute to it.

A glance at the future – what course must be adopted?

Environmental organisations at Bali conference call upon Europeans to remain steadfast; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaThe concept of sustainability is accepted as a principle today. It is now a question of putting it into concrete practice. A large number of companies are setting a good example in this respect and an increasing number of firms have introduced environmental or sustainability management systems, publish sustainability reports or are members of the UN Global Compact for environmentally and socially responsible corporate management. The Global Reporting Initiative develops global standards for corporate reporting within the area of sustainability. Although they are not binding, the latter are regarded as the standard for sustainability reports. At the ISO level, a standard is currently being developed for corporate sustainability management.

The private sector is one step ahead of the private one in this respect. Sustainable development also needs to be firmly established in the political, administrative and local-authority sphere. A start could be made by laying down environmental and social criteria for public procurement, ranging from municipal energy management to master plans for dealing with demographic change. However, in the final analysis, sustainability also means that public-sector budgets must be geared to the criteria of sustainability. Sustainability must become a firmly entrenched, mandatory component of all political and social decisions. This is the only way to move on from theory to practice.

Literature on the topic

Meadows, Donella H. and Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III: The Limits to Growth. A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, 1972

Dr. Pascal Bader
is Head of the Policy Department of the Ministry of the Environment of Baden-Württemberg. After studying Economics, Dr. Bader spent some time working on a research project at Harvard and is now responsible the sustainability strategy of the State of Baden-Württemberg. He is also responsible for the following subject areas: economy and environment, corporate social responsibility and product-related environmental protection.

Translation: Mary-Lou Eisenberger
Copyright: Goethe-Institute e. V., Online Editorial Team

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March 2008