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  • Gulcin Per

A Brief Journey To The Origins Of Sustainability

Have you ever struggled with the definition of sustainability? Or maybe you have a definition of sustainability that seems to be from a different perspective?

A couple of months ago I had a conversation with some fellow sustainability enthusiasts. During the conversation we noted that we were not on the same page. Even though we were all self-declared sustainability enthusiasts, we surprisingly found ourselves going to the basics and asking what sustainability means to each of us. Astoundingly, there was a wide spectrum of views spanning from environmental sustainability to economic sustainability – and plenty in between. The abundance in definitions was followed by a vague use of sustainability-related buzz words (such as sustainable development, three pillars or three dimensions, triple bottom line, sustainable living, sustainable community, sustainable society, sustainable economy… ). Amidst this complexity we decided to settle on the definition as framed in Brundtland Report from United Nations (UN): “… meets the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, with a focus on three aspects of well-being: economic, ecologic and social.

Questioning the definition of sustainability led me to search for the roots of the term. A journey through to the academic literature confirmed that there was no standard on defining sustainability. It was rather a concept developing gradually with changing needs and conditions. In this regard, one of the most impressive and advanced research on the history and origins of sustainability I read was conducted from Purvis, Mao and Robinson: “Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins”, which was published in the Sustainability Science Magazine in 2018.

The research paper is definitely worth your time to read. And those who would like to get some impressions first, before diving into the paper, here are my highlights from the research paper:

In the study, the authors attempt to explore the foundations of three-pillar concept of sustainability (social, economic and environmental pillars) and make a deep dive into the literature. The research ends up with a conclusion that there is no single source to point out as the origins of the three-pillar concept of sustainability. However, their deep investigation in history brings the evolving meaning of sustainability to the light.

As the research reveals, the sustainability movement shows its core in questioning the human impact on environment. Coupled with the increased awareness on the real meaning of growth-based economies, poverty, inequality and the great environmental destructions, the sustainability notion gains a momentum. Raising consciousness puts the international efforts and development programs aiming to help “less developed countries” into question. The economic growth oriented nature of these development programs attracts the sharp critiques.

Along with the critiques a new concept emerges from the UN Conference on the Human-Environment in Stockholm as “environmentally sound development”, which integrates an environmental consideration into economic development. The concept changes the name in 1973 to “eco-development”. As stated in the study, in 1978, Ignacy Sachs explains “eco-development” as: “an approach to development aimed at harmonising social and economic objectives with ecologically sound management in a spirit of solidarity with future generations”.

Although we usually recall the term “sustainable development” with Brundtland Report in 1987, the study discloses the first appearance of the term in the publication: “World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development” in 1980, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) together with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Then, in 1987 with the Brundtland Report, the UN spread the term to wider audiences and institutionalized the concept. The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 consolidates the principle of “sustainable development” by gaining a consensus from world leaders. This concept from UN makes a pressure on the significance of economic growth in order to bring solution to ecological and social issues.

Image by Sustainability Hub [CC BY-SA 3.0]

According to the study, the same year the famous Venn diagram model of the sustainable development concept with intertwined 3 circles appears. The study suggests that Barbier (1987) is the creator of this diagram.

In 1990 a sub-concept arises in business literature. Triple bottom line (TBL) term shows up as an accounting method for business in the book of “Cannibals with Forks” from John Elkington. Here comes the suggestion: coupling the traditional financial bottom line of corporations together with social and environmental performance. This addresses 3 aspects -“people, planet, profit”- to consider for decision-makers.

A final interesting emphasis from the study discusses the unclear borders of the terms: “sustainability” and “sustainable development”. According to the researchers, the gradual integration of economic-growth based “development” into sustainability concept brings the two terms closer and results in a vague practice for both. Based on their literature search, there seems to be a more recognition on the term “sustainable development” then on the term “sustainability”. In this respect, the authors argue two possible reasons. First possibility points out the UN as the reinforcer of the term“sustainable development” through Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Second possibility highlights the simplicity of using the term “sustainable development” comparing to using the term “sustainability” in a context. According to the authors, when we use the term sustainability, we need to use it in a specific context. It implies, answering the questions of “whom” or “for what” sustainability, in order to use the term “sustainability” meaningfully. This complexity can result in individuals using rather the term “sustainable development”.

These were the key points from the study, which I highlighted here for a quick look. However, I highly recommend reading the full paper for a profound insight into the subject. It’s a research-intensive academic paper. So grab your coffee, sit back, relax and let the study takes you to the history of sustainability. For the original study please click here.

About the author: Gulcin Per is part of the global team of volunteers contributing to the reboot of Impact Garden. She is also an MBA graduate and a business consultant. Her passion for windsurf and her role as a mother make her a strong advocate against climate change.

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