In the last decade, we have been hearing -and seeing- a lot of the word sustainability and other words connected to it, and we have experienced a new wave of ‘green’ campaigns, conducted by both individuals and companies. But what does sustainability really mean? And why did it become so famous and important?
Let’s start with its definition, which is many and different, but I believe that the one given by the United Nations during the first Conference on the environment in 1972 could be the most appropriate. This event was the first global one where sustainability appeared as an important
and urgent issue, and it was defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In my opinion, this is the best definition mainly for two reasons. First of all, it makes us think about sustainability in a wider and more general way, not only about the environment or recycling. In fact, contrary to what many people think, this concept relates to every field of our lives, from the responsible consumption of food to the purchasing of clothes, but also the way we move in our lives, for example choosing public transportation instead of the car…
So, this is a dynamic concept and it basically concerns three dimensions: environment, society and economy.
The first concern on sustainability was indeed focused on solving the pollution problem in the early ‘60s, and it brought about the establishment of various environmental organizations, such as Green Peace (1971). Then it had further developments, and its fields have been broadened into climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, and many others. The second dimension refers to the sustainability of a society, and its ability to live in a viable way and to share and reach common goals. These goals are, for example, the health and well-being of a community, which are also connected to and depend on environmental sustainability. These are in fact important to avoid situations like poverty and social exclusion.
The third dimension is referring to economic growth and it’s the most controversial one.
Many researchers are indeed against the concept of sustainability because they see it as an impossible aim to reach in the actual society. These scholars argue that economic development is by nature in contradiction with environmental protection and sustainability. But, on the other side, there are many researchers that elaborated on different theories to reduce the environmental impact and limit the use of natural resources. These three dimensions are deeply interconnected, as we can see in the picture, and each of them must be taken into consideration in order to reach the final goal, sustainability.
The second reason why the above-mentioned definition is important is that it makes us reflect on how all of this depends on people, and it calls for our actions. Connected to this, there is also another important term that is sustainable development, which can be used as a synonym for sustainability and can be seen as its practical side. A lot of activities have been done on this over the years, and we could say that the most recent effort was made with the creation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly.
This contains the famous Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 aims elaborated by signatory Countries of the Agenda as a global partnership to reach sustainability.
These SDGs encompass all fields of sustainable development, from health to education, or from climate action to gender equality. More in detail, you can see from the picture the single goal with its aim, and they have inside between 8 and 12 targets to reach. Each target has one or more indicators that are used to check the progress of the target, and these are monitored by the United Nations Statistics Division. As you can notice, these are putting together the 3 dimensions described before, trying to solve not only environmental issues but also economic and social ones.
To sum up, sustainability has an old and long history, even if nowadays it is raising more and more attention. This is due to several reasons, one of them could be that our planet’s situation is becoming ever more dramatic, from the melting of the Arctic to famine all over the world, and more and more people are experiencing this. Also, the Covid-19 pandemic spreading worldwide was another signal of the fact that even the so-called developed societies are weak, and that we live in a world where natural resources are not limitless. So, this is definitely a huge issue, and also for this reason many people are critical of this concept and SDGs and their implementation. Personally, I believe that a critical approach is not constructive, and we should all try to live in a sustainable way as much as we can, starting to share good practices in our neighbourhood.
These Goals should be more than words written on a paper, and they should be taken as moral and individual imperative.