We talk a lot about sustainability and sustainable principles. But what does that mean exactly? And how do you measure sustainability?
According to the Brundtland Commission, which first introduced the concept back in 1987, sustainability is ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
The three underlying principles of sustainability are environmental, economic and social.
Since the industrial revolution, human activities have caused increasing harm to the natural world and ecosystems upon which we ourselves depend. So much so scientists have dubbed this era the ‘Anthropocene.’ If this continues unchecked then it could potentially result in our own demise, or at least a lower standard of living for many people worldwide. Therefore, with our sustainability hats on, we have to modify our behaviour to protect the environment for future generations.
Social sustainability means ensuring that universal human rights are upheld and the basic needs of all people are met. People are able to lead productive and safe lives free from discrimination and exploitation.
It’s difficult to achieve environmental sustainability without first achieving social sustainability as, in general, more equal and inclusive societies make better decisions. An example of this is the key role indigenous people play in maintaining ecosystems.
Economic sustainability covers maintaining and improving standards of living. People have access to the resources they require, financial and other, to meet their needs. Economic systems are upheld and economic activities, such as jobs, are available to everyone. Economic sustainability seeks prosperity through growth, but not at the expense of social or environmental sustainability.
For a business to be sustainable it needs to incorporate all three sustainable principles. In economics, this is referred to as the triple bottom line: profit, people and the planet. Businesses, at least in the current system, are the lynchpin of economic activity, creating jobs and wealth.
Of course, they need to make money in order to survive, but they shouldn’t do so at the expense of social and economic sustainability. Whereas many business leaders are tempted to put profits over people and the planet, with our sustainability hats on, this way of thinking is, well, unsustainable.
However, measuring the profitability of a company is fairly straightforward. Measuring a company’s environmental and social impact, on the other hand, is a bit trickier.
One yardstick, growing in popularity, is measuring your carbon footprint, or the amount of carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gas equivalents) emitted as a result of your operations.
When this number has been calculated, it’s then possible to offset carbon emissions through offset programmes such as tree planting. This is a measure we take, and we’re happy to announce (humble brag coming up) we remove more carbon than we emit, so that we’re actually what’s referred to as carbon negative.
Beyond carbon negativity, there are a number of certifications and measures that can be used to measure environmental, and social, impact:
So what's the difference between being sustainable vs eco-friendly or green? Well, the latter two are vague terms roughly referring to a product or service being gentle on the environment. As we've examined above, sustainability is more complex than that, covering both social and economic factors also.
In 2015, the UN published a framework consisting of 17 interconnected goals that form a "shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future." By 2030, the aim is to increase standard of living worldwide, promoting health, education and human rights, whilst simultaneously tackling climate change and protecting the environment. No small task!
Sustainability isn’t just the prerogative of businesses and governments. It’s up to us as individuals, especially in wealthier countries, to do our bit as well.The advantages are numerous, benefiting us in the nearer and shorter term.
Simple steps like not wasting water, energy or food are easily achieved and benefits us economically too. Then, going a little deeper, changing how often you travel and the mode of transport, switching to a reduced meat diet and, of course, consuming consciously.
For a good place to start, see the top ten ways you can reduce your carbon footprint.