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What is Sustainability? A quick introduction to the SDGs

Nowadays, many companies claim to be sustainable, and you come across the word “sustainability” everywhere. But if you're completely honest, you may be struggling to understand what sustainability really means, beyond avoiding plastic bags, reducing heating temperatures or promoting a paperless policy… And are not sure how you, as a professional or business owner can do something about it.  Let us help you sort things out. 

What is sustainability? 

First things first: Sustainability is now a fancy marketing word, but the idea is rather simple and has been defined more than 30 years ago in a report commissioned by the United Nations (known as the Brundtland report). Sustainability is there defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Simply put: Imagine you are a carpenter and have a homestead with a garden and your own workshop. You also have children and relatives or an apprentice to which the homestead and workshop will, one day, be passed on to. What does sustainability in this case mean? That the food you get from the homestead is enough to feed your family, but that you also maintain the land so that the next generation can also live from it. Same for your carpenter workshop and assets: you may be cutting trees to build your neighbours’ houses, but you also plant new ones and optimize wood usage to ensure the regeneration of available resources for the next generations.

If we schematically scale up, the homestead is the earth, the workshop the global economy and the wood, the global resources (fossil energy, rare metals, land, wood, water, etc).

Why is “sustainability” becoming a must 30 years after its definition? 

Unfortunately, this is mainly because we urgently need it. According to a wide range of scientists (IPCCIPBES) we are currently increasing the risks for the next generations of not being able to meet their own needs. In fact, greenhouse gases emissions coming from our activities are constantly rising. These emissions are responsible for climate change which already threatens many people and will threaten even more people in the future. On the other hand, over-exploitation, pollution of natural resources, as well as destruction of natural habitat, are endangering Biodiversity, which is at the basis of our existence. We have built and are building a world that is increasingly hostile to human life. 


To avoid getting down the road of an uncontrollable trajectory, one needed a global framework: meet the Sustainable Development Goals, also known under their acronym, the SDGs. 



The power of the 17 SDGs

Introduced in 2015, the 17 SDGs can be adopted by every single business, organisation, or institution. Each Goal has several targets and indicators to measure progress towards that goal.

While this list seems non-exhaustive, it is possible to break it down in three themes: biosphere, society, and economy. As suggested by the graph below, we believe that the biosphere with life on land (SDG #15), life below water (SDG#14), clean water and sanitation (SDG#6), climate action (SDG#13) are the must-have goals – no other goals can be met if we don’t take care of what sustain us.


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However, don’t take us wrong: it does not mean that all businesses must completely shift their activities and tackle hands-on these goals. Rather, it is a strong invitation that all organisations assess whether they have a role in slowing down or accelerating the journey to reach these targets and what they can do about it. In fact, not all businesses or organisations can participate in all SDGs, and that’s okay. Think of it as a framework where you actively participate in selected goals and support others (e.g. your suppliers or clients), in achieving the rest of the goals. That is why the 17th SDG (e.g. partnership for the goals) might be the most important one of all: we are all in it together. 


Now what?

Sustainability is not only an altruistic action for future generation. Companies making sustainability at the core of their business activities thrive: so can you. 

Get in touch if you’d like support in your sustainability journey! 

                              Author: Bénédicte Herbout

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Co-author: Marie Queneuille


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