Sustainable development: the great abstract
Today you’ll hear sustainable development mentioned everywhere from promoting the latest app, at a shoe launch or painted in bold across bill boards (add to this list every time you hear the word “sustainable”).
On a superficial level one could get the impression that sustainability now lies at the very heart of Hong Kong. Or perhaps, the best thing about the sustainability zeitgeist is that it can and must be all things to everyone and was always meant to be so.
An oft-quoted definition of sustainable development is that defined in Our Common Future published in 1987 (also known as the Brundtland Report): "Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"
To many this rather abstract and noble definition has come to mean balancing the interdependent pillars of economic growth, environmental protection and social development. To others it is simply an oxymoron for economic growth.
Understandably after much debate, it took time for the concept of sustainable development to wing its way out of the corridors of the United Nations into government policy and even longer to be considered seriously in business boardrooms. Possibly the time-lag was due complacency but more likely because the task of working out how best to consider so many contradictory issues simultaneously, against the short-term world of business models and financing, was and is overwhelming.
Let's take a step back and look at far have we come. Next year the Rio Earth Summit will celebrate its 20th Anniversary, and the UN is organising the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2012, again in Rio.
Developing countries want the Rio Plus 20 to consider what has gone wrong in the past 20 years including addressing issues such as the persistent “implementation gap,” and how little of the pledged financial and technology transfers have actually taken place.
There is also the underlying fear that sustainable development has been hijacked by the environmental agenda, which is sidestepping the social development (such as poverty reduction) needs of developing countries. Many developed countries are, however, none too keen to have the 2012 Summit focus on the failures of the past and are more concerned by what kind of institutions should govern sustainable development in the future.
While some would argue that we have not progressed much on sustainable development, I’d say considerable progress has been made but the challenge of embedding social, environmental and economic long-term thinking into any organisational, financial or societal model is extremely tough.
That said, more and more businesses do have sustainability strategies, not only because of a shift in consumer attitudes, but because of the opportunity to seize the competitive advantage and how it connects to brand, trust, and reputation.