Agenda for Change

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Which level are you working at?

Creating sustainable futures means taking sustainability initiatives at every level with effective leadership to make change happen

Agenda 21, to achieve sustainable development in the 21st century, was agreed by Heads of Government at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992. Agenda 21 states that sustainability initiatives are required at every level:


Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, with three key objectives for sustainable futures (Our Common Future p43):

  1. A socially and environmentally innovative, resource-efficient economy that delivers quality of life in the developed world
  2. An improvement of economic welfare and quality of life in the developing countries
  3. A healthy natural environment with resources used and conserved wisely - worldwide.

"The guiding rules are that people must share with each other and care for the Earth. Humanity must take no more from nature than nature can replenish. This in turn means adopting lifestyles and development paths that respect and work within nature's limits. It can be done without rejecting the many benefits that modern technology has brought, provided that technology also works within those limits" [Source: Caring for the Earth, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, p8.]

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (Tomorrow,Mar/Apr 1999, WBCSD News) has coined the term "the 3Es", meaning environment, economy and everyone as a shorthand way of explaining what needs to be balanced to achieve sustainable development and an improved quality of life. This is represented in the diagram below, designed for this web site:

wpe2.gif (1986 bytes)

For specific subject definitions of sustainable development see the sector definition page.

The best way to tackle an issue is to take sustainability initiatives that align the positive elements so that no single party is privileged.

The best place to start is often at home, then your own neighbourhood, place of work, and on up towards influencing national government and international agreements.

The individual can set an example

Find out for yourself how to apply sustainable development in practice by taking action at home. Learn what is involved in making the transition from where you are to where you want to be. This means living lightly on the planet.It is easier to convince others if you have done it yourself. When you "walk your talk" you become more credible and self-confidence grows. It becomes easier to work in a more relaxed way and the leadership initiatives you take are more convincing. A good way to discover how to make your lifestyle more sustainable is to join Action at Home, the programme run jointly by Global Action Plan and WWF (in the UK).

The Voluntary Sector plays its part

Social, ethical and environmental organisations are directly involved in lobbying and promoting the cause of sustainable development but many of them are adjusting what they do and how they do it as more people become involved with SD. There are many examples of small scale initiatives in every part of the country. These include environmental groups, housing associations, Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), organisations seeking to reduce or eliminate the debt of poor countries and those seeking a peaceful world. Some of these are new initiatives, others are well established but have taken on a new challenge to revitalise their work. Find out which are active where you live and and how you might contribute to their work. Offers of help are welcomed by local groups and skilled facilitators have much to contribute.

Small and medium sized enterprise (SMEs)

Small businesses outnumber the big companies by many thousands. 92% of UK businesses have a turnover of less than 1 million. 70% of SMEs are fairly or very concerned about their companies environmental performance. Because they are so numerous their role is crucial and because they are small it is hard for them to find the time to deal with environmental issues. This calls for creative ways in which to provide relevant help, integrated with good business practice, so that results are improved, people working in the business find it satisfying, the community, the local environment and the local economy all benefit.

Local Authorities

Two-thirds of the local authorities in the UK have Local Agenda 21 plans which are being developed and implemented. Some of these authorities have made use of professional help to run meetings which involve a cross-section of the community. Vision building, facilitated meetings of the LA21 Forum and help with setting up voluntary groups are some of the ways in which this help is being provided. Some local authorities have been very creative in their approach, especially Devon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire County Councils and Sutton Borough Council. However, several of these tend to emphasise the natural environment, whereas the social community and the local economy should play an equally important part in a well-rounded LA 21 plan. A survey carried out by the Shell Better Britain Campaign [see Green Futures No 19] shows that people, at the grass roots, emphasise the importance of community spirit, and facilities for young people among their top priorities.

Public sector organisations

There are many organisations in the public sector that are now beginning to look at the meaning of sustainable development for themselves. The organisations include government departments, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, professional institutions, Quasi-autonomous Non-governmental Organisations (QUANGOS) and public bodies. These organisations need to look at both their prime responsibility and their administrative policies. For example, many of these organisations have large purchasing budgets, their offices consume a lot of energy and their staff require transport and car parking. All these areas can be investigated to discover how to make progress towards sustainable development. Action at Work, a programme devised by Global Action Plan provides practical guidelines.

Large businesses and multinationals

Large companies are very influential and their impact is considerable. They have a direct impact on many smaller organisations who are their suppliers, distributors or retailers. Some large businesses have had social and environmental policies for many years and publish a Corporate Environmental Report or have a separate section within their annual report. Large companies usually start with the practical things that can be done easily in a cost-effective way by finding technical solutions to known problems. In due course the easy pickings are exhausted but there is no turning back. Reverting to a low profile is not an option. Systematic management of social and environmental matters is not enough. Full integration of social, ecological, ethical and economic aspects of running a business becomes essential.

This means rethinking business strategy, modifying procedures, and involving all 'stakeholders'. At this stage companies embark on an exploration of sustainable development as they search for sustainability initiatives that will lead to organisational transformation with new vision and values. Throughout this process the simultaneous triple challenge of maintaining performance, discovering latent potential and changing into a different business for a future that will inevitably be different has to be tackled together. Progress towards the sustainable enterprise becomes possible when this happens - but only if people change, they can then change the company.

A key area for many companies is how to assess the appropriateness of new technology. Six questions are proposed by Neil Postman, teacher at New York University in an article in Resurgence July/August 1999 (p33):

  1. What's the problem? New technology needs to solve a valid problem.
  2. Whose problem is it? Is it widespread or does it affect only the interests of tiny minority?
  3. What new problems will be created by solving an old one?
  4. What people and institutions will be most seriously harmed?
  5. What changes in language are occurring? New meanings are always a serious matter for clear communication.
  6. What new sources of economic and political power will emerge?

National Government

Since the election of the Labour Government in May 1997 and the creation of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) several initiatives have been taken in the UK to do things differently. Three current examples are the revised approach to sustainable development, the integrated transport policy and the approach to waste management. These initiatives and complementary local studies give rise to new strategies for implementation that could benefit from professional help from facilitators, process consultants and trainers. Similarly in other countries where policy statements about sustainable development are published there will be opportunities for making progress and accelerating the rate of change.

Quality of Life Indicators

On Monday 23 November 1998, John Prescott, UK Deputy Prime Minister announced the Government's "quality of life barometer". He said: "we are committed to a new way of thinking, one that puts environmental, social and economic concerns alongside each other at the heart of decision-making. Sustainable developments link the standard of living and the quality of life, not just here in Britain, but right across the world." In future the UK Government's performance is to be judged against 14 indicators, as confirmed when the Sustainable Development White Paper was published in July 1999. The Indicators are explained in a free publication (Tel: 0870 1226 236) Monitoring Progress:

The list of indicators has been well received. There are some proposed indicators that are difficult conceptually or require new data collection, so feasibility is being explored. However, The New Economics Indicators Update for April 1999 adds that the UK government is working with others on a core menu of indicators for regional and local use and with the European Union for an agreed set of headline indicators for Europe.

The bird count indicator is welcomed. However, Baroness Young, Chief Executive of English Nature, criticises the proposal to use GDP as the measure of economic growth because of its known weaknesses and the government's apparent faith in 'sustainable growth' of the UK economy. Friends of the Earth recommend abandoning GDP as a measure, and would like the UK's "ecological footprint" added.

International agreements

Agenda 21 was agreed at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and provides guidance for achieving sustainable development in the twenty-first century at every level. 


Plain language versions are available, for example the book Agenda for Change, by Michael Keeting. Other international agreements were signed at Rio and are being endorsed by national governments across the world. Follow-up conferences take place such as the world energy strategy conference at Kyoto, Japan in 1998. However, the best way to learn what Agenda 21 means in practice could be to find out what your local community is doing to implement it. There are over 2,000 local communities now doing so - 350 in the UK.

The United Nations Human Development Report 1998 throws light on world priorities by comparing total annual expenditure in different areas:

Area of expenditure

US $ Billions

Basic education for all 6
Cosmetics in the USA 8
Water and sanitation for all 9
Ice Cream in Europe 11
Reproductive health for all women 12
Perfumes in Europe and the USA 12
Basic health and nutrition 13
Pet foods in Europe and the USA 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotic drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

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Last modified 23 November 1999