Frequently Asked Questions about SD

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Questions that are often asked about the meaning and application of sustainable development are given below with suggested answers

Typical questions are (suggested answers follow):

  1. What does Sustainable Development mean?
  2. Can businesses apply the principles of sustainable development and still succeed?
  3. What is the triple bottom line?
  4. What is Agenda 21, and more specifically Local Agenda 21?
  5. How can Sustainable Development be applied to transport?
  6. Are economic progress and sustainable development incompatible?
  7. Can sustainable development principles be applied to energy?
  8. Surely the individual can do nothing worthwhile?
  9. Does sustainable development help people and the community?
  10. Isn't it too late already?
  11. How can I earn a living while integrating ecology with economics?
  12. Can busy people find time to make changes and how do they benefit?
  13. Can companies deliver sustainable development?

Suggested Answers

1    What does Sustainable Development mean?

The term started to be used in the 1970s and became widely known after publication of Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also know as the Brundtland Report after the chairman of the Commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway. It described sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Since then it has been widely quoted and adopted but also extensively abused by using 'sustainable' in front of all sorts of inappropriate words.

2    Can businesses apply the principles of sustainable development and still succeed?

Yes, several are doing so.  Many larger organisations have had environmental policies for several years and there are many well-documented accounts of how resources can be used more efficiently, pollution reduced and costs cut by implementing sensible business measures that help people, the environment and the business.   A good way to get started is by applying the principles contained in a programme like Action at Work, designed by Global Action Plan.

3    What is the triple bottom line?

John Elkington, founder and chairman of SustainAbility coined the phrase "triple bottom line". By this he means that whereas in the past business only had to bother about their financial performance, in today's world they increasingly have to be concerned with how their business activities impact on people and communities and how it affects the natural environment. These three, economic, social and environmental measurements are increasingly being used by responsible businesses to measure and report on their performance. Examples from the experience of several businesses are described in routes to sustainability, Companies and SD, and company statements on SD.

4    What is Agenda 21, and more specifically Local Agenda 21?

Agenda 21 is one of the documents agreed by over 100 national leaders at the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992. Agenda 21 is the master plan for achieving sustainable development world-wide in the 21st Century. It sets out the international agenda and has separate sections dealing with the agenda for national governments, local government, business and individuals. Local Agenda 21 is the programme for local authorities and in the UK over 70% of local authorities were working on their plans by December 1997.

5    How can sustainable development be applied to transport?

By making mobility of people and goods less damaging to the natural environment. This means avoiding unnecessary journeys, reducing dependency on the car and improving public transport. A very high proportion of car journeys are less than 5 miles, many are less than 3 miles, and car travel could be reduced if more people walked or rode bicycles, if more car sharing was arranged and the telephone or the Internet was used instead of some journeys. Likewise more people and goods could be carried by public transport if regularity and reliability was improved and it was more cost-effective.

6    Are economic progress and sustainable development incompatible?

No, but the conventional way of measuring economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is inadequate because it measures quantity not quality and ignores the undesirable side effects on people and the environment. Instead the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has developed the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) which has now been recommended by Environmental Audit Committee because it measures both quantity and quality of growth. This index makes adjustments for the damage done to people and the environment by conventional measures of economic activity.

7    Can sustainable development principles be applied to energy?

Yes! In the short term it is cheaper to increase available energy for new business by cutting wasteful uses rather than by building new generating capacity. Insulation and efficient combustion of oil and gas saves energy which can then be sold for new applications. In the medium and long term the goal is to shift the reliance fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) which, when burnt, eject carbon deposits into the environment, to increased use of renewable energy such as the sun, wind and tides. The cost of generating electricity by these methods continues to fall dramatically and they are becoming economically attractive.

8    Surely the individual can do nothing worthwhile?

The contribution of isolated individuals is tiny but collectively there is a vital role for everyone - see the page on living lightly. Over 23,000 households are taking part in Action at Home designed by Global Action Plan and run by them in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Participants in this programme look in turn at how their household deals with waste, energy, water, transport and shopping and each month receive an Action Pack full of practical ideas they implement at home to change their lifestyle and help the environment. These packs contain many ways in which children of all ages can get involved in interesting ways. Those taking part complete a questionnaire from which they get a 'green score' and can see by how much this improves by following the programme. Typically the amount of waste put into dustbins is reduced, less fuel is used, water usage is cut, petrol savings are made and wiser shopping avoids unnecessary waste and saves money - all these actions improve quality of life and help the environment.

9    Does sustainable development help people and the community?

Yes, by emphasising quality of life rather than quantity of consumption sustainable development helps people and the community. This means different things depending on the local situation and the current lifestyle of individuals. It may mean avoiding the construction of an incinerator in one place, easing traffic congestion in another and avoiding seasonal water shortages in a third. By linking individual action with Local Agenda 21 initiatives people and the community both benefit.

10    Isn't it too late already?

A defeatist attitude will only make matters worse. There are many practical ways in which the problems that exist can be tackled so that the future will be better than it would be if nothing was done. Wasteful consumption can be reduced, much pollution can be avoided, traffic congestion can be eased and energy can be obtained from renewable sources. All these and other measures can and are improving the quality of life for people.

11    How can I earn a living while integrating ecology with economics?

The number of people who are succeeding in doing this is growing all the time. New organisations are creating job opportunities in both the public and private sector. As more businesses adopt environmental policies and move towards sustainable development they are seeking people with new skills and are also widening the responsibility of managers to include social and environmental responsibilities. Several independent consultants and trainers have a wide range of fees depending on the type of client they work for. This enables them to do interesting and challenging work on sustainable development, some of the time. Later they can adjust the balance as the opportunities increase and their confidence and experience grows.

12    Can busy people find time to make changes and how do they benefit?

No one suggests that it is easy to make changes in lifestyles, but it has proved easier than expected for many people. For example growing numbers are reducing household waste, saving energy, avoiding wasteful uses of water, making more use of public transport, buying organically grown or fair trade food, using ethical financial services for house buying, savings and pensions and joining appropriate organisations that support peace, enhance community relations or promote environmental solutions. The cumulative effect of many thousands of people doing these things makes a real difference. For the individual it can lead to reduced costs, improved health and a warm feeling about contributing to the wider scheme of sustainability.

13    Can companies deliver sustainable development?

No, that can only be achieved by communities, in fact only by the global community. However, companies can review not only whether they are "doing things right" but also whether they are "doing the right thing" in terms of corporate environmental sustainability. They can strengthen their "licence to operate" by accepting the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic performance. This would make a significant contribution towards global sustainability, which would be further strengthened if companies avoided (or stopped) campaigning in support of their short term economic interests for those things that inhibit progress towards the creation of sustainable communities.

Last updated 16 November 1999

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