Introduction to Sustainability
It’s about more than just the environment
We all care about sustainability, right? Getting plastic bags out of the ocean and saving orangutans? Sign me up. Well, it turns out sustainability is about a whole lot more than protecting animals and the environment from human impact. In our work, we come across this misconception more often than you would think, and so in this blog post we reflect on the true definition of sustainability and what it encompasses.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, sustainability is defined as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” with a secondary definition that hints at its modern evolution into a synonym for environmental sustainability “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance” – now we see where the confusion comes from!
While the word itself began being popularised in the 1980s, it continued its upward trajectory into the 21st century as public concern grew over the often wasteful and destructive path that humanity was taking.
Measuring Sustainability: ESG
Understanding how modern sustainability professionals measure and understand sustainability is a good place to start. ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance. It is often used to establish the societal and environmental impact of a business, investment or project in the interest of financial performance and ethical operation. Of course, the environment plays a key role in this more holistic approach, but two other distinct areas are also included in determining sustainability.
In ESG analysis, impact on the environment is primarily measured as the subject’s contribution to the global climate crisis and whether the consumption of resources and the subject’s output is sustainable. Excessive emissions, pressure on nature and biodiversity, uninhibited resource use and the generation of waste are all common, critical factors. This aligns closely with the popular, widespread view of what sustainability means.
Social sustainability is where we diverge from what is conventionally known. In a nutshell, this pertains to socially acceptable norms and how these relate to humans, humanity, communities and how we go about our daily lives and the impact this has on others as well as on the planet. It covers a diverse range of subjects such as modern slavery, anti-bribery and corruption, ethical business practice, to name just a few. Modern slavery in particular is a topic regularly in the mainstream media and there is no shortage of stories about the harm that corporations large and small do – and not always intentionally, as you might think. What might be considered unethical practice in today’s modern society might not have been regarded in the same way a century ago. Social normal also vary from country to country, so as you can see it’s a complex area and it’s little wonder that companies feel daunted when developing or updating their Corporate Social Responsibility strategies.
Governance is another complex area. At face value, it is about the checks and balances put in place to ensure that corporations act within the law, behave ethically, and in a fair and equitable way. Standards, procedures, processes and controls all come under governance. However, companies that demonstrate good governance are often run by leaders with vision and purpose, and it is these elements that inform what policies and procedures need to be put in place. When you look at good governance, look at the leaders and you will see why a business behaves in the way it does. The same applies to unethical companies where you are likely to find different values.
Taking a bite of the doughnut
The doughnut model is perhaps the best possible way to assess humanity’s sustainability successes and failures. The doughnut model was created by economist Kate Raworth as a way to better define and understand humanity’s 21st century challenges. It aims to illustrate our goals and responsibilities within society while taking care of the planet, acting as “a compass for human progress this century.”
The idea is that we need to maintain the foundation or floor of our society whilst staying within our planetary environment boundaries. There are 12 factors that contribute to a fair, safe, positive and productive society and nine planetary boundaries – things that we must keep below a safe level or face irreversible consequences. These have been included in a table below but the best way to understand the doughnut is to see its visual representation, which you can find here.
· Income & work
· Peace & justice
· Political voice
· Social equity
· Gender equality
· Climate change
· Ocean acidification
· Chemical pollution
· Nitrogen & phosphorus loading
· Freshwater withdrawal
· Land conversion
· Biodiversity loss
· Air pollution
· Ozone layer depletion
In future blogs, we will endeavour to explore ESG, the doughnut model and other modern sustainability thinking in greater depth. For now, though, this has hopefully opened your eyes to the wider view of sustainability, which encompasses far more than the environment. Sustainability is about aligning humanity’s needs and ambitions with those of the planet we live on – contrary to our approach thus far, it is possible to satisfy both!
If this has been of interest, feel free to get in touch and we can suggest further reading. We will soon be introducing an educational and informative sustainability learning module, so, keep your eyes out for that and stay up to date by subscribing to our newsletter below.
If you are looking for sustainability planning, consultancy or communications support, drop us an email and find out how Wylde Connections can help your business.
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