The linear economic model has improved our living quality at the expense of environmental degradation and social inequality. Sustainable development strives to foster a balanced development between society, economy, and environment, which can be applied to government administration, business operations, and people’s lives. Moreover, it helps us to break the status quo and safeguard the future of the current and future generations. This article will explain what sustainable development is and why it is so crucial.
What is sustainable development?
The contemporary concept of sustainable development originated in 1983 when the UN invited then Danish Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to form a committee, which published a report titled Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) in 1987. The report depicts challenges at the time such as population, food, ecosystems, energy, and industries, and proposes sustainable solutions. Sustainable development is defined as “Development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Brundtland Report believes that people are capable of realizing sustainable development despite it meaning that there will be some forms of restrictions. However, to accommodate the needs of modern people, the main focus is to create a brand new economic growth model by improving technology and social organization. This is a process of ongoing change.
Why is sustainable development important?
Sustainable development brings comprehensive advancement in all aspects of human civilization, including society, economy, and environment. It also balances economic growth and human development in various countries and prevents environmental and ecological damages due to excessive use of resources from causing a crisis of human survival.
The world is faced with multiple problems such as wars, famines, epidemics, ethnic conflicts, water shortages, extreme climate, degradation of environmental quality, and extinctions of species. The nonprofit Global Footprint Network calculates the Earth Overshoot Day every year by dividing the planet’s biocapacity by humanity’s ecological footprint and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year. The remainder of the year corresponds to a global overshoot.
The Earth Overshoot Day in 2023 is on August 2, when people’s consumption of ecological resources will be 1.75 times that of the amount of ecological resources Earth can generate annually, far exceeding the speed of resource generation. Consequently, the pursuit of sustainable development is imperative for the sustainable development of the environment on which human survival depends.
Developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries are faced with different challenges that require sustainable solutions. For instance, seven states in the Colorado River Basin in the US cosigned a water agreement in June 2023 to implement water conservation and water storage measures in a bid to achieve sustainable water consumption. In addition, subsidies to overfishing are terminated to mitigate the increase of unsustainable fishing practices for all fish species.
The three pillars of sustainable development
Sustainable development is mainly divided into three closely related dimensions of society, economy, and environmental protection. When we improve one dimension, the other two dimensions must also be improved at the same time to achieve optimal benefits. Several case studies concerning the three dimensions will be elaborated below along with how these dimensions can influence one another.
1. Social Sustainable
- Maintaining peace and safety – Safety and life are the most fundamental needs of people. In addition to the loss of precious lives, wars and crimes also deplete valuable natural resources such as steel, wood, and aluminum, which is not only detrimental to people’s welfare but also destroys the economic infrastructure and the environment, as well as severely hindering overall sustainable development.
- Sound healthcare system – A sound healthcare system can look after people’s health and also increase labor capacity and safety. For example, COVID-19 caused a decline in the economy due to transport interruptions and health threats. Meanwhile, it also significantly increased the use of disposable tableware, masks, and packaging that are harmful to the environment.
- Reasonable distribution of wealth – According to the World Inequality Report, the top 1% of the global income population accounted for 38% of the wealth growth between 1995 and 2021, while the bottom 50% of the population accounted for only 2%. Although some difference is reasonable because income varies by job and region, an excessive income gap may create a serious sense of relative deprivation, cause ethnic conflict, reduce workers’ willingness to work, and force some of the population to destroy the environment for the sake of survival.
- Just legal system – Just laws foster social stability and facilitate sustainable economic and environmental development through the power of the public.
2. Economic Sustainable
- Zero waste production and consumption models – The concept of zero waste encompasses rethinking, reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting to lower the amount of waste generated through redesigning products, prolonging lifespans, and establishing good decontamination systems, thereby minimizing environmental impact and reducing natural resource consumption.
- Co-prosperity with communities – Maintain the harmonious coexistence of the region where economic infrastructure is located as much as possible, including the fair distribution and utilization of local resources, job creation, pollution prevention, and infrastructure construction, so as to facilitate sustainable social development through economic resources while providing sustainable resources and labor to promote economic progress.
3. Environmental Sustainable
- Greenhouse gas emissions control – Climate change is the most serious problem faced by people today. Natural disasters such as searing summer heat, freezing winters, forest fires, and heavy rain and drought are all caused by climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. They pose a pressing threat to our economy and society, directly affecting human survival.
- Sustainable use of natural resources – Minerals are non-renewable natural resources. Furthermore, certain renewable resources such as soil, forests, and fisheries also need to be used in a sustainable manner. Otherwise, with the current rate of resource consumption exceeding the rate of regeneration, resource exhaustion is only a matter of time, which will in turn wreak havoc on the economy.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals
SDG 1 hopes to eliminate all forms of poverty and provide the people living in poverty and disadvantaged groups with equal access to services and resources.
SDG 2 hopes to end hunger by promoting sustainable agricultural development through technology.
Good health and well-being
SDG 3 monitors information including the mortality rates of various groups, communicable disease prevention, drug abuse, and the use of toxic substances.
SDG 4 hopes to create a sustainable education system and increase the number of people with employability skills to promote development.
SDG 5 hopes to provide women with equal rights to participate in decision-making and economic resources.
Clean water and sanitation
SDG 6 hopes to provide all people with safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.
Affordable and clean energy
SDG 7 hopes to provide all people with the right to sustainable energy.
Decent work and economic growth
SDG 8 hopes to generate sustainable economic growth while protecting workers’ rights to work, equality, and safety.
Industry, innovation and infrastructure
SDG 9 hopes to realize sustainable industrialization and infrastructure by upgrading existing industries.
SDG 10 hopes to foster an inclusive society for people of any age, gender, religion, ethnicity, or identity.
Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 11 hopes to minimize the destruction of global culture and environment, as well as providing affordable housing for everyone.
Responsible consumption and production
SDG 12 hopes to support and create a sustainable supply chain through the circular economic model.
SDG 13 hopes to materialize the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and bolster various countries’ ability to respond to climate disasters.
Life below water
SDG 14 hopes to protect and restore marine ecosystems.
Life on land
SDG 15 hopes to ensure the biodiversity of terrestrial organisms by protecting various ecosystems.
Peace, justice and strong institutions
SDG 16 hopes to reduce violence and corruption and increase the transparency of institutions.
Partnerships for the goals
SDG 17 hopes to strengthen global economic stability and forge sustainable partnerships by providing disadvantaged groups and countries with resources.
For more detailed information about the SDGs, please see this article: THE 17 GOALS: WHAT ARE THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS?
Why is sustainable development important to businesses?
Create a long and smooth profit curve
Sustainable development measures such as establishing a sustainable supply chain, introducing high-efficiency equipment, and using green power may increase costs in the short run, but they will create a steady cost curve in the long run to mitigate the impact of price fluctuations in non-renewable raw materials and legal restrictions, thereby fostering a long and smooth profit curve.
Decrease business risk
Sustainable corporate development helps to maintain a good corporate image, guarantee raw material supply, and increase transparency, as well as minimizing numerous business risks such as regulatory changes, increased consumer environmental awareness, corporate corruption, and cost fluctuations.
In line with the contemporary trend
According to statistics, over half of the Fortune Global 500 companies went bankrupt, were acquired, or disappeared after 2000. Rapidly advancing technologies and changing values have engendered numerous brand-new business models. For example, Tesla has created a new business model based on sustainable energy and the need for sustainable climate actions to become the 242nd-ranked company on the Fortune Global 500 list in 2022. If it can find a business model that supports sustainable development, the company will be able to meet national policy requirements and consumer preferences, thereby avoiding gradual elimination.
Increase corporate ESG ratings
The most direct method of assessing corporate sustainability is the ESG score. Institutions such as MSCI and S&P DJI assess enterprises based on their ESG reports and other third-party data. Enterprises with high ESG scores will be more favorable among consumers and investors.
For specific ways to improve a company’s ESG score, please see: THE BENEFITS OF CORPORATE ESG SCORES.
Bolster employee loyalty
Taking care of employees is part and parcel of corporate sustainability. Providing a good work environment, obtaining a positive corporate image, and adopting a more transparent corporate governance approach will naturally elevate employee loyalty.
Why is sustainable development important to individuals?
As the global population increases constantly, every individual’s consumption, production, investment, and daily activities become forces that drive the world forward. Sustainable development does not happen overnight or rely on the support of a few people; rather, everyone must understand and support sustainable development to ensure the Earth’s sustainability and safeguard our security and the future. After all, problems such as climate change-induced natural disasters, the threat of war, and water shortage will fall squarely and equally on everyone, hence it is imperative to exert one’s influence to avoid threats to our quality of life and our lives.
Why is a sustainable lifestyle important?
Our daily activities constitute the consumption of natural resources by everyone on the planet. By following a sustainable lifestyle, we can exert the influence of sustainability on every little thing we do, thereby making the most significant changes at the least cost, and we can embrace challenges caused by other people’s non-sustainable behaviors more easily. For example, to address climate change, we can lower subsidies on fossil energy, which will result in increased gas prices. The subsequent impact of such actions on our lives can be mitigated if we all develop a habit of using mass transportation or electric vehicles.
Sustainable development starts with using eco-friendly products
Sustainable development is crucial and urgent to modern people, thus enterprises and individuals should all support sustainable development. As the driving forces of the economy, production and consumption affect sustainable social and environmental development directly. Consequently, SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production is considered one of the most influential SDGs. Enterprises and individuals can begin with manufacturing and producing eco-friendly products, focusing on the goal of zero waste and the sustainability of natural resources to produce low-carbon and easily recyclable or compostable products to facilitate sustainable development while upholding people’s quality of life.