Issues concerning Sustainability


Of the major principles of governance and the one which is most prominent at the present time is sustainability. Consequently we are devoting a complete chapter to dealing with this topic. It is one that has recently become very important for businesses, and all large businesses - and many smaller ones - have a sustainability plan, or at least claim to have such a plan. We need therefore to start by establishing exactly what we mean by sustainability.

Defining sustainability

Sustainability is concerned with the effect which action taken in the present has upon the options available in the future. The starting point for every definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Report, which was published in 1987. This is actually a report named Our Common Future which was produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It is generally known however as the Brundtland Report after the commission chair.

Strictly speaking the Brundtland Report was concerned with sustainable development which they regarded as unquestioningly both possible and desirable. Their definition of sustainability starts from the premise that if resources are utilised in the present then they are no longer available for use in the future. This has led to the standard definition of sustainable development which states that this is:

"Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

This principle has been incorporated in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties on European Union, as well as in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), meeting in Rio de Janeiro 3 to 14 June 1992. The European Community and its Member States subscribed to the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 and committed themselves to the rapid implementation of the principal measures agreed at UNCED.

The Brundtland Report

This report is considered to be extremely important in addressing the issue of sustainability. The report described seven strategic imperatives for sustainable development:

o Reviving growth;

o Changing the quality of growth;

o Meeting essential needs for jobs, food, energy, water and sanitation;

o Ensuring a sustainable level of population;

o Conserving and enhancing the resource base;

o Reorienting technology and managing risk;

o Merging environment and economics in decision-making.

It also emphasized that the state of our technology and social organisation, particularly a lack of integrated social planning, limits the world's ability to meet human needs now and in the future.

This report made institutional and legal recommendations for change in order to confront common global problems. More and more, there is a growing consensus that firms and governments in partnership should accept moral responsibility for social welfare and for promoting individuals' interest in economic transactions (Amba-Rao, 1993).

Significantly however the Bruntland report made an assumption - which has been accepted ever since - that sustainable development was possible and the debate since has centered on how to achieve this. Thus ever since the Bruntland Report was produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 there has been a continual debate concerning sustainable development. Similarly emphasis has been placed on such things as collaboration, partnerships and stakeholder involvement. It has however been generally accepted that development is desirable and that sustainable development is possible - with a concomitant focus on how to achieve this. Quite what is meant by such sustainable development has however been much less clear and a starting point for any evaluation must be to consider quite what is meant by these terms.

There is a considerable degree of confusion surrounding the concept of sustainability: for the purist sustainability implies nothing more than stasis - the ability to continue in an unchanged manner - but often it is taken to imply development in a sustainable manner (Marsden 2000; Hart & Milstein 2003) and the terms sustainability and sustainable development are for many viewed as synonymous. For us we take the definition as being concerned with stasis (Aras & Crowther 2008a); at the corporate level if development is possible without jeopardizing that stasis then this is a bonus rather than a constituent part of that sustainability. Moreover, sustainable development is often misinterpreted as focusing solely on environmental issues. In reality, it is a much broader concept as sustainable development policies encompass three general policy areas: economic, environmental and social. In support of this, several United Nations texts, most recently the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, refer to the "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection.

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