Sustainable Development

Traditionally Sustainable Development refers to the ‘triple-bottom line’ of Economics, Environment and Society. Where these components are balanced in interaction without harming the one or the other, Sustainability is achieved. Updated versions of this model, understand that these spheres are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually dependent as nested components. The economic sphere is wholly dependent on socio-political systems and then both spheres are dependent on the environment or eco-system services. The latter may refer to the ability of the earth to provide resources, but also sink capacities such as restoration. It is now well recognized that society and the economy cannot function sustainably without due consideration of the environment or greater social equality. See diagram below.

Many environmental and social problems emerging in the 20th ad 21st century can be attributed to the neglect of social and environmental costs within the functioning of the global economy or economic models. Many millions of hectares of land and forest have been destroyed in the name of economic growth and profit. This trend continues as the corporate machine continues on its destructive path. As shown by the diagram, the business component is extremely important as it forms the core of wealth creation but is in dire need of restructuring toward sustainability so as to function harmoniously with the other components. Innovation for sustainability is seen as the key driver of this transformation and also represents an opportunity for a new business paradigm.

More recently, in the last 20 years the concerns of environmental destruction and social inequality have been taken seriously by governments, large multi-nationals, SMME’s and universities. Concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Investments (CSI) have emerged as well as numerous management and compliance packages eg. ISO 14001. Whilst these latter tools have made some difference to the image of many businesses, in essence many large companies continue on an actual path of unsustainability. The problem associated with the compliance approach is that it hampers the innovative capabilities of firms, as they rely on various external measures, codes and practices rather than developing their own innovative solutions. Most recently the shift toward ‘sustainable innovation’ within organizations provides a new approach, whereby firms and governments seek new innovative ways to become sustainable and thereby more competitive. See Sustainable Innovation Stellenbosch Network (SISN) for more details.