The idea of sustainable development was born with the Brundtland Report in 1987 (Our Common Future1), where the word was used for the first time. The initial anthropogenically-oriented definition indicated the specific form of development which provides the satisfaction of the current generation’s needs, without compromising the capability of future generations to create value and preserving the accumulated resources, in its economic, social, and environmental dimensions. The participation of all people to satisfy the basic needs assumes then a big relevance: it is not possible to reach a sustainable growth if the majority of people live in a condition of permanent poverty and have no access to the amount of resources needed to contribute to the national economic growth.
The aim of sustainable development is to make the growth concept coherent with the idea of social equity and to reach a balanced coexistence between the human being and the overall ecosystem. More specifically, the human expansion has to be coherent with the exploitation of resources, the investment directions, the orientation of technological development, and with the institutional changes. The frameworks where the "sustainable development" word is applicable are therefore three: economic, social, and environmental.
A more comprehensive vision of sustainable development was provided in 1991 by the World Conservation Union, UN Environmental Programme and by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which describe the concept as an improvement of the life quality that does not exceed the exploiting capacity of ecosystems.
After that (in 2001), the UNESCO extended the connotation to the notion of cultural diversity (the forth pillar of sustainable development), which is essential to stimulate economic growth by its being a means to conduct a better life, both emotionally and spiritually.2The idea of improving life quality has been recalled within Amartya Sen’s "Capability Approach" (1979, 1985, 1999)3, which revolutionised the welfare state economy, by considering ideas that were not considered until then. Several possible activities which lead the human being toward happiness, the wellbeing distribution in the society, the importance of the real freedom - which is characterized by his/her capacity to choose - and the reduction of materialism in human development are related to Sen’s concept of sustainable development.
Environmental commitment towards the achievement of sustainable development was raised in 1992 with the Earth Summit on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro (the first historical global conference on sustainable development). From the debates raised in the summit, it was decided to proceed with the writing of the known United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change4 , ratified by 152 countries in 1994, which indicates the important general objective of not overstating a precise level of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to maintain constant the medium global temperature. The subsequent Conferences of the Parties (Berlin 1995, Geneva 1996, Kyoto 1997, etc.), organised by the members of the above mentioned Convention, were of the same importanceand gave rise to important results in environmental issues. Nowadays, the most important example of international commitment and cooperation for sustainable development in environmental issues is the Kyoto Protocol, ratified in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, which stabilises, by 2008-2012, the reduction of 5.2% in global CO2 emissions as compared to 1990 emissions.5
A relevant number of countries in the world (Annex B) are committed to reduce GHG emissions that are partly responsible for global warming. The aim is to contain the dangerous consequences for humans, which would derive from the rise in the medium global temperature. Several initiatives may be implemented to achieve this reduction. Firstly, energy saving allows the control of the amount of energy implied in production processes; the improvement of energy efficiency supported by the technological development implies the production of the same amount of output with a lesser amount of energy resources, as well as the use of alternative energy sources to diminish the exploitation of fossil fuels; in addition, to favour energy efficiency eco-compatible buildings might be built, and families and individuals should consume energy in a more conscious and responsible manner. Firms can assist in the environmental protection also through the enlargement of carbon sinks, natural reserves which accumulate and stock carbon. Forests, for example, allow to sequester an important quantity of CO2 by the natural respiration process of the trees.
Within the socio-economic framework, there is a special attention to the concept of sustainable development at firm level (named Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR). The compiling of the Social and Environmental Reporting are example of voluntary initiatives, which – aside from the creation of economic value – describe the most important networks between environment and society. Other than these accountability instruments, many other standards exist to realise the same communication purpose. Shortly, the standard ISO 26000 "Guide on Social Responsibility" will be published with the aim of increasing firms’ consciousness and responsibility for the impact of their activity on the environment and on the whole society.
With respect to firm organisational models, the standard ISO 9004 can be taken as an example of "Guidelines for the improvement of services", which will be renamed in the next revision, "Managing for sustainability". This change underlines the effort needed by firms and other organisations towards a more long-term oriented commitment that can improve the balance of all stakeholders’ interests. Among the factors that influence the debate on CSR are:
- the current transformations of economic systems;
- the influence of social and environmental criteria on consumers’ and investors’ choices;
- available information on the firms’ activity thanks to transparency derived from the means of communication and the modern information technology;6
- the increasing attention paid to life quality, security and health;
- the interest towards natural resources;
- the consciousness of human influence on the environment;
These and many other factors have generated new economic thoughts which support the idea that the liberal philosophy – which has the final aim of maximising profits – should progressively give higher importance to qualitative, social and environmental objectives, and to sustainable growth.
Even though the majority of people agree on the idea of sustainable development, this concept has encountered important critiques within supporters of the ‘Degrowth Theory’ or the ‘Sustainable Degrowth’ which generated great interest during the International Convention ‘Défaire le développement, refaire le monde’ (take down the development, re-build the world), held in 2002 in the UNESCO buildings. In 2003, a second convention was organised in Lion by a group of ecologists. Some of the supporters of this critique are for example Serge Latouche, Maurizio Pallante, and Jacques Grinevald. Latouche and Pallante criticise the theory from an historical as well as a socio-economic point of view, which is based on the realisation of the failure of the current development model, which has left behind the South of the world and has driven the existing social inequalities. Jacques Grinevald suggests a different critique that highlights the limits that natural laws impose to the concept of economic growth. It is not possible to develop a growth process based on continuous production increases, which is at the same time compatible with environmental sustainability. Sustainable growth meets its limitations in the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activity – waste and pollution – without compromising the environmental equilibrium on which depends the survival of humans. Both streams suggest an alternative model of development, which invites to change direction with respect to the occidental model of development: not growth then, but sustainable ‘degrowth’. The South of the world, in their growth processes, do not have to follow the paths traced by more advanced countries, but they must draw other directions.
1Our common future (1987). The World Commission on Environment and Development, General Assembly of ONU
2Art 1 and 3, Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, UNESCO, 2001
3Sen, Amartya K. (1979). Utilitarianism and Welfarism. The Journal of Philosophy, LXXVI (1979), 463-489;
Sen, Amartya K. (1985). Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press;
Sen, Amartya K. (1999). Development As Freedom. New York: Knopf;
5The Kyoto Protocol. Downloadable at: http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php
6Green Paper of the Commission of the European Communities (2001), Promoting a European framework for Corporate Social Responsibility, Brussels, COM (2001) 366 final.
Editor: Melania MICHETTI
© 2009 ASSONEBB