Brundtland Commission

Tomorrow I am being interviewed on my thoughts on sustainability. I'm to discuss the following four questions, with 5 – 10 minutes allowed for each question.

1. What is sustainability? Define it, particularly as how it relates to businesses. What are its components, what makes something "sustainable", etc.

2. Why is sustainability important to companies? Why should it be a priority? Who should be responsible for it?

3. What is the best indicator that could help a business executive better understand the problem of sustainability? How do you evaluate such indicators? Are there specific criteria?

4. Give specific examples on good/bad sustainability in some companies.

In preparation for this I have gone first of all to what is commonly known as the Brundtland Commission report. It makes sobering reading – mainly because it was published in 1987 and it seems that very little that it called on to address has been addressed since then. We are still in a situation where

"The Earth is one but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others. Some consume the Earth's resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations. Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease, and early death."

And strikingly more than 20 years ago came the warning in the report that

"Little time is available for corrective action. In some cases we may already be close to transgressing critical thresholds. While scientists continue to research and debate causes and effects, in many cases we already know enough to warrant action. This is true locally and regionally in the cases of such threats as desertification, deforestation, toxic wastes, and acidification; it is true globally for such threats as climate change, ozone depletion, and species loss. The risks increase faster than do our abilities to manage them."

But there has been some progress. The definition of sustainable development that the Commission came up with: "Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future" seems to have reached many businesses – not least because consumers and others are putting pressure on them to change. Multinationals previously known for their less than sustainable practices are now acquiring companies that have a less tarnished, more sustainability oriented image. (Though the words 'greenwashing' and 'sold out' are heard in this connection).

I suppose like many people I have gradually got used to the word 'sustainability' without having a real appreciation of the history of the concept. Reading the report was an exercise worth doing in that it helped ground my thinking.