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Reclaiming the higher purpose of sustainable development

Realising Bristol Green Capital Partnership’s vision of a sustainable city with a high quality of life for all means addressing the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – in a coherent, integrated way. The UN Sustainable Development Goals offer a means to enable city organisations and citizens to work together to build a sustainable, inclusive and flourishing Bristol. The Partnership is working with other city stakeholder through the Bristol SDG Alliance to explore the practical use of the SDGs in the city, recently publishing a useful initial report by a team of Bristol University masters students that explores this.

In this blog, UWE’s Dr Mark Everard takes a longer view, noting a past tendency to achieve sustainability through ‘negative’ regulation, and how the SDGs offer a more ‘positive’ approach to sustainable development.                                                   

Ian Townsend, Bristol Green Capital Partnership chief executive


Dr Mark Everard, Associate Professor of Ecosystem Services, University of the West of England, Bristol; mark.everard@uwe.ac.uk

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission explicitly framed sustainable development around human needs, including a strong inter-generational commitment.  Practical implementation of this grand vision over the past three decades into regulations and management tools has largely fallen short of these ideals.  As examples, Life Cycle Assessment, many ‘sustainability indicators’, and chemical regulations such as EU REACH tend to focus on potentially adverse impacts.  In essence, the focus of implementation shifted to how ‘bad’ things are for the environment and for human health. The practical perception of sustainable development has, for many, been relegated to becoming progressively ‘less crap’.

Whilst understanding and reducing negative impacts undoubtedly remains important, the higher purpose of meeting human needs on an enduring basis has been lost in translation.

Human needs and their satisfiers

Abram Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ was seminal in the study of human needs. Manfred Max-Neef and colleagues took a less tiered view, but recognised that ‘satisfiers’ – meaning physical things, settings, qualities and actions – were essential to fulfil these needs.  In essence, physical ‘stuff’ and tangible institutions and activities are necessary to satisfy needs: roofs for shelter, pipes for clean water and sanitation, hospitals for treating illness, schools for early education, and so on.

Today, the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make a welcome addition to a dominant sustainable development narrative limited by three decades of statutory formalisation, returning the primary focus back to satisfying human needs.  The sustainable development debate is then elevated to how these diverse needs can be met with appropriate ‘satisfiers’ on a long-term basis.

Retaining an understanding of the systemic nature of the SDGs is of paramount importance.  It would be easy, but mistaken, for a company or other organisation to fall into the trap of selecting just a few Goals to address, rather than looking at all 17 SDGs as an intimately interdependent suite.  When these 17 global challenges are addressed systemically, major opportunities arise.

Water pipes, equality and improving human wellbeing

As an example, manufacturers of materials from which water pipes are made might consider that they need address only clean water and sanitation (SDG6), accepting that they also need to have regard to decent work and economic growth (SDG8).  However, particularly in the developing world where women are the primary natural resource stewards and may spend 6 or 7 hours each day fetching water of dubious quality, often at great personal risk and stress, piped solutions can contribute directly to improved food productivity addressing ending hunger (SDG2) and good health and wellbeing (SDG3), but also significantly to gender equality (SDG5).

Freed from daily drudgery, women can then contribute to more productive activities such as community governance, traditional medicine, and education (SDG4) of girls in particular (SDG5 again).  Efficient water solutions can also relieve pressures on the natural environment (life on land, SDG15, and life below water, SDG14).  Where life cycle stewardship of pipe materials occurs, particularly recycling to avoid waste and retain societal value, value chains can make significant contributions to responsible consumption and production (SDG12) and climate action (SDG13) and, for collaboration along international value chains, to partnerships for the goals (SDG17).

Materials used in the water-related example also have important roles to play in light, cheap and adaptable applications supporting affordable and clean energy (SDG7) and industry innovation and infrastructure (SDG9) contributing to sustainable cities and communities (SDG11).  Whilst these applications do not directly contribute to ending poverty (SDG1), reducing inequalities (SDG10) and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG16), they nevertheless play supporting roles in making these additional goals more achievable.

All businesses organisations therefore have potential direct, indirect and supporting roles across the full spectrum of the 17 SDGs.  Businesses recognising these wider potential contributions to the SDGs can open up new, profitable needs-related markets, motivating staff and investors alike through the clear contributions they make to meeting human needs.

Reclaiming the ‘higher purpose’ of business

Business emerged from the Industrial Revolution as a model for converting raw resources into products to meet human needs, also precipitating a ‘golden age’ of philanthropy when a proportion of the unprecedented wealth generated was reinvested in publicly beneficial enterprises such as libraries, civic parks, hospitals, schools and museums.

Since the nadir of the 1980s, when much of western business redefined itself by competitive wealth-generation without accounting for its wider social and environmental costs, businesses have been rediscovering this primary purpose through emerging recognition of the need for a ‘triple bottom line’ sustainable pathway of development, corporate social responsibility, and other initiatives.  Leading enterprises now grasp social and environmental responsibilities as a differentiator averting bad press, increasing supply chain stability, and promoting preferred supplier status and confidence amongst staff and investors.  Furthermore, in the internet age, disclosure of bad practice is only two clicks of a mouse away.

The SDGs can help businesses and other organisations ‘repurpose’ themselves through an explicit recognition of the spectrum of human needs that they exist to serve. This is the positively‑oriented ‘missing half’ of the sustainable development narrative that we lost by regulatory focus on all the ‘bad stuff’.

Yes, we have to keep addressing the challenges of becoming ‘less bad’, but we can also engage proactively and meaningfully with the primary purpose of meeting consensual human needs with appropriate ‘satisfiers’ in a sustainable way.

What is more motivating when one gets up in the morning to face the working day: trying to be less bad whilst generating profits for anonymous shareholders, or consciously contributing to the sustainable satisfaction of human needs and environmental sustainability?

I know which I would choose.

Dr Mark Everard is Associate Professor of Ecosystem Services at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Mark’s involvement and interests in sustainable development go back many years, including formerly working for the Environment Agency and Defra in research and policy roles, in academia and in business, and with a strong interest in community co-management of natural resources in international development.  Mark has been developing and working with ecosystem service concepts since the late 1980s.  He is also represented on a number of intergovernmental (Ramsar Convention STRP) and national expert groups, was a Founding Director of BART (the Bristol Avon Rivers Trust) and is author of a diversity of scientific, technical and popular books, papers and presentations including a presence on TV and radio.

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