What is sustainability and what does it mean to you?
Sustainability – a word increasingly present in a world becoming more considerate of the environmental challenges and social inequities we face. But what does sustainability mean? And even more importantly, what does it mean to you?
Despite the ever-growing trend of greenwashing, sustainability is not merely a buzzword, it’s a fundamental guiding principle. This article will investigate how we define sustainability, what it means in today’s context, what sustainability practically looks like as well as resources and examples of sustainability in action.
First, I encourage you to briefly reflect on what sustainability and sustainability in action – sustainable development means to you. Share your perspective or prompt reflection with our minute survey.
The concept of sustainability as a guiding principle is not a recent development. Notably, indigenous cultures and traditional practices have laid the foundations of modern-day sustainability and sustainable practice. Holding a deep understanding of the interconnectedness between human activity, long-term prosperity and our earth, indigenous peoples mastered sustainable living before it was a trend. This ABC article is a good starting point in appreciating the lessons from Australian indigenous practices acquired over 60,000 years of living off the land and managing resources.
While the concept of sustainability is far from new, the modern-day term “sustainability” has largely evolved from the 1987 United Nations’ landmark Brundtland Report, both popularising the term and establishing it as a cornerstone of global development. The report defines sustainability to be:
This definition is still widely used to define sustainability and what we at SDG Align refer to as a holistic and encompassing definition of the principal. But what does it mean and entail to meet the needs of the present without compromisation of future needs?
Turns out in our global system, it requires matrimony of our environment, society and economy. The report highlights that “sustainable development” lies on environmental protection, social equity and economic growth going hand in hand.
In fact, this trifecta behind sustainable development is precisely the inspiration for our company’s logo.
The above “nested approach” to sustainable development recognises the mutual dependency and interconnectedness of these three key dimensions. By addressing economic, social, and environmental dimensions together, we can work toward a resilient future.
Sustainability has evolved since its popularisation to encompass broader matters and issues. Increasing urgency to take action to address the climate crisis, losses in biodiversity, continued social inequalities and other pressing matters have prompted increased recognition and support of sustainability from an individual scale to governmental.
Attitudes have shifted in recent decades and working toward sustainable development and practices has become imperative. Recognising the finite nature of our planet’s resources, the impact of overconsumption and pollution and the present and impending threats from the climate crisis has prompted widespread action toward reformation.
We are seeing this enacted across various sectors and backgrounds. Individuals are beginning to consciously make sustainable lifestyle choices, governments are considering sustainable policies and actions across various sectors (for example the Australian Government’s increased focus on sustainable finance), and businesses are increasingly expected to consider sustainable processes and practices.
Yet, while perspectives and action on sustainability vary, with some prioritising economic growth over environmental concerns or say environmental concerns with the disregard of matters of social equity, it’s critical we find common ground across these perspectives to make meaningful and lasting progress and change.
What Sustainability Looks Like
To show explicit examples of what sustainability in action can look like, examples are shown across varied sectors of our society with initiatives or case studies in support. To discover further actions you can take as an individual, business or under government find further resources below.
At the individual level, sustainability manifests through various lifestyle choices and active decisions. It can be difficult to be sustainable in unsustainable systems and taking action on this level requires proactivity but also should not be laden with guilt. Individuals can practice sustainable consumption and democratic participation, making conscious decisions about where they put their money, who they support and who they vote for. Daily actions such as alternative transport options, reducing waste, minimising water and taking the step to eat plant-based all collectively contribute toward a more sustainable future.
Sustainability in business largely involves transforming or refining processes and practices that work towards minimising negative environmental impact and aptly promoting social responsibility. This can manifest through green operations, sustainable supply chains and embracing innovative change. For example, businesses can actively choose to work with ethical resources and providers, embrace circular economy principles and actively review their social and environmental status against the SDGs (through a toolkit and aggregated data such as ours!). These actions drive innovation, enhance reputation and contribute to a more sustainable economy.
- B Corporation movement
- Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan
- Patagonia and Sustainability
- Interface’s “Mission Zero”
Governments are essential in shaping sustainability through policy and governance. Establishing regulations and protocols provides the foundations and expectations for sustainable practices and actions across various sectors of society. They have the capacity to invest in sustainable infrastructure and incentivize sustainable action. They also hold the power to implement strategies to address complex societal challenges such as social inequalities. By enacting comprehensive sustainability policies, governments can provide the framework for long-term sustainable development and foster a transition to a more sustainable society.
- Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index
- Germany’s Renewable Energy Transition
- The Nordic Model
- Bolivia’s Mother Earth Laws
In essence, sustainability today is about balancing the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It calls for a shift from short-term thinking to long-term planning and decision-making. A collaborative journey across society as we work toward collectively shaping a healthy and prosperous world.