Do you know what Sustainable Development means? And the SDGs?

Image 1 - The Sustainable Development Goals - Source: United Nations

Usually in the workshops and training courses that we facilitate, one of the first points that we usually address is the Sustainable Development Goals, their relationship with the Circular Transformation and how they can become a driving force for creativity and innovation. With this experience, we understood that several people still do not know a lot about this topic. For this reason, in this article we will talk about the "Sustainable Development", the "3 Pillars of Sustainability" and the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda, a global commitment signed by more than 190 countries.

Sustainable Development: Origin and concept

The awakening to the degradation of natural systems and their close relationship with human activity began to gain traction shortly after the end of World War II. However, the event that marked the entry of this theme to the global agendas, was the first United Nations conference focused on discussing environmental challenges, which took place in 1972. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Conference Stockholm, given its location, resulted in the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a program that is still in effect and that focuses on environmental protection and conservation.

Following this conference, in 1983 Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway and formerly Minister for the Environment was invited to chair the team responsible for developing the report that would serve as the basis for a global agenda, centred on effective cooperation between countries. The goal was the evolution and positive change of nations, for the construction of a more fair and balanced world, with better conditions for all. In 1987, the report “Our common future”, also known as the Brundtland Report, was published, presenting one of the concepts for “sustainable development” most used until today:

"A development model that responds to the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to respond to their own needs."

Sustainable development is a concept that differs from growth, as the latter is not always positive in all its dimensions. Until recently, one of the main indicators used to assess a country's development was the variation in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, GDP growth cannot always be associated with the country's sustainable development.

Let's look to the electronic landfill in Ghana case: When Ghana started receiving e-waste from other countries, coincided with a period of economic growth and its GDP. However, although this country has received electronic waste, it has allowed an increase in the capacity to create jobs and trade, this growth has had the consequences of drastically increasing pollution, degrading the health of its inhabitants and increasing child exploitation. To promote sustainable development, it is essential to have a holistic and systemic view, so that various dimensions and their relationships are considered. Thus, sustainable development implies looking for ways to ensure the evolution of people's well-being, in an increasingly fair, balanced and healthy way and through systems that respect and do not jeopardize the limits of the planet, natural systems and the environment. Survival and well-being of the remaining living beings.

Image 2 - Concept of Sustainable Development - Source: United Nations

The 3 Pillars of Sustainability

Another idea that is also strongly emphasized in the Brundtland Report is the close relationship between "Environment" and "Development", considering them "inseparable". This report highlighted the interdependence between the social, economic and environmental nature challenges, presenting several examples of how they are interconnected and influence each other. Similar to what happened with the “waste trafficking” case, social inequalities and the search for survival often lead to the development and acceptance of economic activities, with harmful consequences at the environmental and social level. On the other hand, the search for environmentally sustainable solutions can foster favourable innovations from an economic and social point of view and periods of economic growth “open space” for the development of solutions for the social and environmental challenges. However, and although the concept of sustainability is intrinsically associated with these three dimensions (social, environmental and economic), this term has been often used, in particular between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, to underline issues only focused on the environmental or economic perspective.

In 2010, the Johannesburg Declaration following the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development reinforced these 3 pillars of sustainability, which had already been underpinned since 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Eco 92), held in Rio de Janeiro.

Thus, sustainable development must be:

Image 4 - Sustainability Triad - Image by Mariana Costa - Source: United Nations

  • Socially equitable: Sustainable development should promote equal rights and opportunities for all, leading to greater balance and justice in the distribution of wealth and access to essential resources and services for a dignified life, such as education, health, food and housing, in alignment with Human Rights. To promote greater equity, there should be measures focused on the most disadvantaged audiences, which enable and create conditions so that they can prosper, allowing them to become increasingly independent and positive and participative forces in the evolution of societies.

  • Environmentally responsible: We can only face “sustainable development” when societies manage to prosper in harmony and synergy with nature and not on account of it. For that, we must develop new ways of acting that respect the limits of our planet and that do not imply the degradation of natural systems and the reduction of biodiversity. As we are an integral part of natural systems, their degradation implies our degradation, so to ensure our continuity, we must break the destructive stance assumed in recent decades, looking for new paths that will allow us to “do well” instead of being content in “doing less harm”.

  • Economically effective: As we look throughout history, moments of crisis put environmental and social issues in the background, as they are wrongly considered as “less urgent issues”. The journey towards sustainable development implies the ability to invest in measures that allow us to achieve these goals, so the ability to be economically effective becomes crucial. Through smart investment, enabled by the ability to be economically effective, new ways of acting can be created that generate value for the entire system, instead of creating value only on the side, while destroying the other.

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs

Image 5 - The Sustainable Development Goals - United Nations image available on the official website of the SDGs knowledge platform

Following the goal of developing a global agenda committed to sustainable development, which became known as Agenda 21, in the year 2000 the United Nations launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were ongoing until 2015 and consisted of a set of 8 goals, focused on combating extreme poverty, social inequality and environmental sustainability. Although the environmental component is included in the MDGs, there was only one goal exclusively focused on this component (MDG 7 - Ensuring environmental sustainability), with 6 of the objectives focused on social equity (1 - End hunger and misery; 2 - Achieve the universal basic education; 3 - Promote gender equality and empower women; 4 - Reduce child mortality; 5 - Improve maternal health; 6 - Combat AIDS, malaria and other diseases;) and 8 in the development of worldwide partnerships.

Although not all goals have been achieved by 2015, the MDGs have contributed to a substantial improvement at the social level, particularly in developing countries and on issues such as access to education, drinking water and the reduction of extreme poverty.

In 2015, the UN Agenda 2030, which represents the vision, ambitions and strategy, which the participating nations intend to create and develop by 2030, brought with it the Sustainable Development Goals best known by the SDGs. The Agenda 2030 SDGs are formed by a set of 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators, which have been signed by over 190 countries. The achievement of these goals implies a set of measures that includes the whole of civil society, involving policymakers, companies, public interest organizations and citizens.

Every year all around the world, numerous initiatives are aligned with these goals, which include conferences, workshops, networking events, funding opportunities, among others. Several companies have voluntarily committed to contributing to the achievement of these objectives and through the official website of the SDGs, it’s possible to consult the evolution of these commitments, among other useful information such as resources, news, initiatives, etc. Compared to the MDGs, the SDGs have a much more holistic, broader vision and much more aligned in the concept of sustainable development.

Video 1: United Nations (2015), What is sustainable development

Alignment of the Business Strategy with the SDGs

As mentioned, several organizations around the world have aligned their strategies with the SDGs, using them as a guideline and source of inspiration for new solutions, initiatives and innovations. This alignment “opens doors” to new synergies that reinforce the capacity to actively contribute to the achievement of these goals and to the search for new ways of acting, which in addition to contributing to greater competitiveness, integrate the 3 pillars of sustainability, reinforcing the positive impact of them.

Companies that seek to use the SDGs as an engine of innovation, should:

1) Understand in greater detail each one of the 17 Goals, knowing the associated challenges and projects that are currently underway;

2) Identify which of the goals are most related to the organization's strategic vision;

3) Analyze the organization's strategy and business model and identify if this needs to be reviewed to promote sustainable development;

4) Structure potential projects or initiatives that promote the company's evolution and that have a positive impact on the goals;

5) Structure the action plan, with the respective activities, goals, result indicators to be evaluated, partnerships, budget and schedule;

6) Develop an internal and external communication plan that involves the company's employees and that allows the stakeholders to follow the project's developments and victories;

7) And evaluate the results, to analyze if the objectives are being reached and make adjustments if necessary.

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Mariana Pinto e Costa


Agenda 2030 | UN News

United Nations Environment Program | UN News

Eco 92 Declaration on Environment and Development | United Nations

Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development | United Nations

ODM | United Nations

ODS | Knowledge Platform

Our common future | Brundtland Report

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