Sustainability is a concept that evolves due to pressing challenges, worldwide issues, and its own concept limits. New concepts have emerged to think further and respond better to all the world’s current challenges.
A few of the conceptual and practical developments in the sustainability landscape are as follows:
Embedding sustainability in all dimensions of an organisation is key for ensuring the future of the organisation itself and minimising the impact an organisation has on the natural environment and society.
The world needs to take urgent actions, amplify its ambitions and strive for not only minimising the negative externalities on natural environment but also respond to the imbalances created in the process of wealth creation, and regenerate wherever possible, to the maximum extent possible.
Sustainable regeneration must replenish and restore its resources, it must “heal” environmental, economic and social wounds. It is not just about limiting negative impact, it’s about having a positive impact.
To achieve this, companies must take regenerative actions.
Actions should not be limited to commiting for zero deforestation, rather the commitment should expansive and include reforestation and regeneration of ecosystems as well.
Similarly, actions should not just focus on fair payment to workers or farmers, but also emphasise on creation of an enabling system where workers can upskill, reskill or generate diverse livelihoods. In essence, commitments and actions shall focus on long-term value creation for the planet and the people
In 2009, Johan Rockström, an internationally recognised Swedish scientist for his work on global sustainability, led a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists to identify the processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system.
The scientists proposed a set of 9 quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.
Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.
The 9 planetary boundaries are:
1. Stratospheric ozone depletion
The decrease of the stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere enable the entry of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. This increases the incidences of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems.
2. Biodiversity loss and extinctions
The human demand for food, water, and natural resources causes severe biodiversity loss and leads to changes in ecosystem services.
3. Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds, and radioactive materials in the environment.
4. Climate change
Greenhouse gas emissions and concentration in the atmosphere rise to a point where it disrupts the carbon cycle. Earth system thresholds are close to tipping-point where carbon cycle accelerate Earth’s warming and intensify the climate impacts.
5. Ocean acidification
CO2 dissolved in the oceans forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the number of available carbonate ions, an essential ‘building block’ used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation.
6. Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
Human modification of water bodies includes both global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapor flows arising from land-use change. Anthropogenic factors are now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems.
7. Land system change
Land (forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other vegetation types) is constantly converted from one use to another to satisfy human demands, having serious impacts on biodiversity reduction, water flows, and the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other important elements.
8. Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans
Nitrogen and phosphorus are both essential elements for plant growth. Their biogeochemical cycles have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes.
9. Atmospheric aerosol loading
Aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle affecting cloud formation and global-scale and regional patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions.
Today, humanity has already crossed 5 planetary boundaries:
Land system change
Loss of Biosphere Integrity (Biodiversity loss and extinctions)
Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans (biogeochemical flows)
Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
Doughnut model or Doughnut Economics
Doughnut Economics introduces an economic paradigm suited to the contemporary context.
Rather than a rigid framework of policies and institutions, it embodies a cognitive shift aimed at cultivating regenerative and distributive dynamics demanded by the present century.
Drawing insights from diverse schools of economic thought, including ecological, feminist, institutional, behavioral, and complexity economics, it outlines seven guiding principles for adopting a 21st-century economist mindset. These principles serve as a roadmap to transform economies on a local and global scale.
It was developed by the economist Kate Raworth in her 2012 paper A Safe and Just Space for Humanity and elaborated in her 2017 book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.
The diagram consists of two concentric rings. A social foundation — to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials, and an ecological ceiling — to ensure that humanity does not collectively overshoot planetary boundaries.
Between these two boundaries lies a doughnut-shaped space that is both ecologically safe and socially just — a space in which humanity can thrive.
The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.
As a systemic model, the doughnut is used and implemented by different actors in society, to adopt new business models.
Confusion between “green” and “sustainability”
Over the past years, sustainability has been very often linked to the notion of green growth and “green” arguments and actions, notions that are criticised today because they do not take sufficient account of other critical issues like social responsibility or resource availability.
There is a major difference between “Green” which is strictly concerned with environmental health and “Sustainable” which is concerned with environmental health, economic vitality, and social benefits.
This confusion is due to the incorrect use of the terms “green” and “sustainable” synonymously and interchangeably in the public space.
Greenwashing and social-washing
The increasing public consideration for sustainability pushes companies to use the sustainability argument wrongfully and falsely to attract customers and to improve public perception.
Greenwashing uses environmental arguments, while social-washing uses social responsibility arguments.
Washing is used in communication in different ways:
the use of the argument of sustainable development when the approach initiated by the company is either almost non-existent or very partial, not very solid, not widely deployed among employees
a message that could mislead the consumer about the real ecological quality of the product or the reality of the sustainability approach.