What is sustainability?

While many people equate sustainability with the “green” movement, sustainability involves much more than just environmental protection.

There is a lot of discussion and action around the term sustainability. The idea of sustainability has evolved from the pursuit of “sustainable development”. The most visible roots of sustainable development emerge from the 1987 Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future,” which summarized the outcome of the World Commission on Environment and Development formed in 1983. The commission sought to address growing concern “about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development.” Sustainability addresses wholeness and balance among ecological integrity, economic vitality and social equity in order to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Ecological integrity involves protecting Earth’s natural systems and functions such that human actions don’t reduce the capacity of the earth to harbor a large variety of biological species habitats and ecosystems, as well as to process key components, nutrients and services such as water, air and soil. Economic vitality ensures that humans are able to gain access to resources to ensure a high quality standard of living. Social equity provides that access to Earth’s resources and a high quality standard of living is available to all ranges of society both now and for future generations. The key for sustainability is to not just focus on one aspect of sustainability at the expense of another aspect.

Sustainability in the corporate world was fueled by the development of the term “triple bottom line” through the work of John Elkington in his book “Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.” While some designate the triple bottom line as ecology, economy and equity, others refer to it as people, planet and prosperity. Another prominent figure who infused sustainability throughout a global company was Ray Anderson, founder of Interface Carpets. He discusses how the embrace of ecological integrity and social justice principles ensured economic profitability for his company through his book “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose: Doing Business by Respecting the Earth”. Anderson credits his awareness of sustainability to Paul Hawken’s book the “Ecology of Commerce”.

In the decades since the 1987 report the idea of sustainability has evolved, deepened and engaged civil society, the business sector and government from local to global levels. This progress is revealed in a series of interviews with sustainability pioneers reflecting on the path toward sustainability since 1987. The emergence of employment websites dedicated to jobs in sustainability mark the rapid growth of career opportunities with government, private sector and non-profit organizations. Today virtually every major corporation (Ford Motors, Walmart, Coca Cola, Meijer, Steelcase, Herman Miller, Comerica Bank) produces a sustainability report outlining how it works to protect some aspects of sustainability.One of the growing challenges of implementing sustainability is its complexity in terms of balancing the triple bottom line. Often people gain familiarity with certain aspects of sustainability such as recycling, energy efficiency, fair trade, organic or buying local. The key thing to remember is that for any specific action one needs to consider the implications on protecting ecological integrity, economic vitality and social equity. Michigan State University Extension programming reflects sustainability through establishment of the Community, Food & Environment Institute that includes work teams such as Sustaining Community Prosperity, Community Food Systems and Natural Resources.

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