Sustainable Development is a term that has gained much exposure over recent decades, however it’s meaning is rarely discussed, and this can lead to confusion, misuse and ultimately to a lack of action on what is an important issue for the future of the planet. The most popular definition of sustainable development was made in the 1987 UN-sponsored report Our Common Future, which defined sustainable development as;
This is a rather neat definition which helps to illustrate the goal of preserving our standards of living into the long-term future. It is however rather vague. A closer look at the literature reveals that sustainable development is rooted in three broad categories of economic, social and environmental sustainability, and that only by meeting these three criteria can the challenge of sustainable development be met. These categories are often referred to the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ of sustainability, and typically form the basis of organisations corporate social responsibility programmes.
Taking a closer look at sustainable development four key principles emerge;
It is through these principles that the true nature of sustainable development is revealed; developed nations have become accustomed to a certain quality of life that is energy and resource intensive and that has significant environmental impacts. This places huge stress on the environment and has seen most of the Earths ecosystems go into decline, whilst natural resource availability becomes ever more scarce. Yet If we are to eradicate poverty and bring a level of equality across the world economic growth is required so as to create employment and provide access to goods and wealth. Doing so would however increase yet further the environmental strains on a planet that is already witnessing the impacts of climate change. Based on current levels of production and efficiency, the world cannot support this aspiration.The numbers involved in the idea of Infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources simply do not add up. This leaves a number of options;
1) Poorer nations are denied the opportunity to develop.
2) Richer nations go through a phase of de-growth so that poorer nations can develop.
3) We take the business as usual approach of economic growth until environmental catastrophe.
4) We find new ways of doing things so that we can deliver economic growth at least environmental cost. Or in other words we have more with less.
Option four may sound ambitious, however if individuals, businesses and governments can work together to pursue more innovative and efficient ways of doing things, it is an achievable aspiration, and many success stories already exist.
Sustainable development is not just an environmental issue. It is about ensuring the quality of life that we have become accustomed to, into the long-term future. For businesses this means maintaining profitability, but finding new, more efficient ways of doing so, initially; by using less, by making less and by wasting less. In doing so businesses can gain much competitive advantage including; reduced bottom line costs, access to new markets, better quality of service, improved bid and tender offers. In the longer term wider societal and economic changes may be required to foster the development of circular economies that may be decoupled from a centralised approach to economic growth in which continued consumption results in the depletion of the planets finite supply of resources.
Whilst firms have historically been built on a grounding that puts profit first no matter the cost, this landscape is changing. Stakeholders are becoming more informed, more active, and firms are thus under increased pressure to conduct business in way that is both transparent, and responsible in both an environmental and socially ethical way.
Whilst SEEG understands that businesses are vital for society, creating new opportunities, providing personal security through employment, and a host of products and services that we have come to depend on, it also acknowledges that business has been responsible for a number negative impacts on the planet and its people. Increasing pollution and depletion of natural resources threaten the future wellbeing of human societies, and the irreversible degradation of ecosystems, whilst business practices has at times led to much social injustice, from poor pay, to unsafe working conditions, and tax avoidance. Getting the balance right between the benefits delivered by organisations, and the often-unaccounted social and environmental costs of their operation is key to the future of humankinds wellbeing on our planet.
SEEG sets out to address these issues by promoting the idea of the responsible firm within the university to both our staff and our students. In doing so we will help to push forward new research avenues, and also to work alongside businesses to assist in the transition to a new way of doing business that asks first not "how much profit has been made", but rather "how has this profit been made". As part of this commitment the Business School has contributed to the PRME (Principles of Responsible Management in Education) HQ in New York. A progress report sent to the PRME HQ in New York can be found here.