Sustainability & Sustainable Development: Are they Different?

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Sustainability has today become a buzzword for business organisations. It is packaged and promoted in various ways – be it eco-friendly, green, organic, circular, or natural. Literally, it means to ‘maintain‘ or ‘continue‘. So, in a business context, it should mean perpetually running a profitable organisation. However, this meaning, as popularised by the advocates of sustainable development, is slightly different. Quite often, sustainability and sustainable development are used interchangeably. Are they the same or different? Let’s explore.

About Sustainable Development

The term sustainable development was coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission’s report titled Our Common Future. This Commission, set up by the United Nations, was chaired by the then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report defined sustainable development as the development that meets the present generations’ needs without compromising the future generations’ needs. Thus, sustainable development was viewed as a macro-level concept comparable to economic development.

About Sustainability

On the other hand, sustainability is usually explained at an individual or organisational level. John Elkington coined the term ‘Triple-Bottom Line (TBL)’ approach in 1994, which often serves as the basis to define sustainability. In line with this approach, sustainability implies that business organisations must focus not only on economic value but also on the social and environmental value generated or destroyed by them. In other words, the profit or loss, i.e., the bottom line, must be driven by economic as well as social and environmental considerations. Theoretically, it sounds well and logical given the fear of climate change and the global sustainable development agenda. But, there are many practical challenges. A brief discussion of the challenges follows.

The Sustainability Challenges

One, there are hardly any established models or frameworks for organisations to become sustainable. Only a handful of global case studies from the developed countries are available, which many businesses may perceive unsuitable to their context.

Two, most sustainability regulations to check the social and environmental impacts are voluntary. The governments seem to be giving mixed signals.

Three, decoupling or growing without negative social and ecological impacts is expensive, at least in the short run, and the shift to a long-term perspective goes down well with only a few leaders.

Four, the employees, largely a product of the current education system, are trained to focus on the economic outcomes.

Five, the terms, standards, practices, and projects vary at the international, national and organisational levels. So, there is confusion.

In fact, a lot of debate on sustainable development is complicated, beginning with the definition, as explained ahead.

The Framing Bias

First and foremost, the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development is a classic case of framing bias. It oversimplifies the sustainable development agenda and makes it look achievable with some degree of effort. For instance, there is little clarity or consensus on the present and future generations’ needs. In fact, modern-day needs are continuously rising in number and sophistication.

Second, the time horizon is vague. The time difference between the ones affecting (the current generations) and those being affected (the future generations) is neither clear nor measurable. In other words, which future generation should be the focus?

Third, as it seems that the affected generations are far away, there is hardly any empathy. Neither the victims exist nor is the impact visible. The human mind hardly captures stories of characters without faces, precisely why viral videos attract so much empathy.

Fourth, the passive tone of the definition complicates responsibility allocation. Who is meeting the needs? When everyone is responsible, practically no one feels the burden.

Finally, the human perspective is supreme in framing and conceptualisation. The lens is the human eye; what sustainable development holds for the other species on the planet does not figure.

So, where do we go from here?

To move towards sustainable development and sustainable organisations, specific inputs and outcomes are required rather than high-level concepts. Calling spade a spade may help! Awareness must improve significantly; each stakeholder must be responsive. Business organisations need to engage stakeholders and prioritise issues. But the main driver will be the regulatory framework. Governance at national, state and local level, needs a radical outlook. If the laws and the expectations are clear and precise, organisations may accept the change.