What is Sustainability?

And What Does It Have to do with a Doughnut?

By Helen Sanders

Sustainability is often simply thought of as environmental protection, but it is a much broader concept. In 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development in their report “Our Common Future” as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The report identifies three pillars of sustainable development: Economic growth; environmental protection; and social equality.

Development in each of three pillars can be negatively correlated with each other, such that achieving sustainability in one area could have a negative impact on the others, if not considered together. Economic growth has been prioritized over many years by countries, and this has resulted in non-sustainable resource extraction, pollution, de-forestation, bio-diversity loss and uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.

The Brundtland Commission also concluded that because “poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems,” it is “futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequity.” The commission recognized that there is a limit to sustainable economic growth, but that this limit can be changed based on the present state of technology.

Doughnut Visualization

In her book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Haworth creates a pictogram illustrating a sustainable “regenerative and distributive economy” as the ring of a doughnut (the piece you’d eat). The inner ring of the doughnut (the hole) defines the social foundation. We should strive to avoid operating there. This is the “social equality” pillar in the Brundtland definition. Outside of the doughnut is the upper limit of economic growth, operating above which irreversibly causes damage to Earth’s ecological systems. The doughnut itself is what she calls “the safe and just space for humanity” to operate and grow.

The rather simple Brundtland sustainability definition has profound ramifications not only for how countries manage economic growth and public policies, but for sustainable growth for our businesses. For building product manufacturers and installers to be sustainable in our development—by definition—our operations and supply chains must use no more natural resources than can be renewed, they should have no impact on the surrounding eco-systems and emit no greenhouse gases. Our products must also deliver lasting energy and human comfort performance in buildings, be designed for upgradeability, maintainability, repairability and recyclability.  We must also have a positive impact on our social foundations. This is needed to create a future planet on which our children and future generations can thrive.

Helen Sanders is in strategic business development for Technoform North America Inc. based in Twinsburg, Ohio. Read her blog each month at usglassmag.com/insights.

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