What does environmental sustainability mean? And why is it now considered one of the essential starting points for a new approach to business? These questions can be answered by taking a look back at the last half century or so, from the first environmental movements to the definition of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the UN’s 2030 Agenda.
The concept of sustainability is inextricably linked to environmental protection, but in recent years it has undergone a radical evolution, having started out with a focus almost entirely on ecological factors before expanding to a broader vision that takes into consideration economic and social aspects, in addition to environmental ones.
The term “sustainability” was originally presented during the first United Nations Conference on the environment in 1972 before being officially coined in 1987 in the so-called Brundtland Report. That document defined as sustainable a development model capable of satisfying the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy theirs. This definition came from the realisation that our Planet’s resources were not infinite and thus needed to be preserved with care, without wastefulness, while respecting ecosystems and biodiversity.
Thus environmental sustainability is one of the key aspects of the broader concept of sustainable development, which pertains to all the actions that institutions, businesses and individuals can take.
Earth Day turns 50
On 22 April 1970, 20 million environmentalists mobilised in the US to raise government and public awareness of the need to protect our natural resources. This was the very first Earth Day, which was later ratified by the United Nations.
50 years later, it has become a genuinely global phenomenon, involving 193 countries worldwide. Today the Earth Day Network is launching the challenge to find new solutions to the questions of how we can contribute to environmental sustainability and reduce the impact of our lifestyle on the Planet. The answer right now is a development model capable of maintaining a balance between respect for the environment and socio-economic progress through long-term strategies such as:
- recognising the intrinsic value of environmental resources;
- protecting the biodiversity of species and ecology;
- protecting the health of productive ecosystems, such as agricultural land and livestock farms, by making them sustainable;
- fostering the energy transition by using renewable energy sources;
- creating products, goods and services through environmentally-focused eco-design;
- mitigating the effects of climate change.
From Agenda 21 to the SDGs: actions to guarantee environmental sustainability
The first global environmental sustainability policies programme to move in this direction was Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations’ Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In September 2015, the UN further broadened the scope of the plan of action with 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a blueprint of actions and targets designed to improve the life of people all over the world and safeguard the Planet’s ecosystems.
And so, from the 1990s onwards, it wasn’t just governments that were beginning to create and adopt protective regulations and tools to evaluate the impact of industry and goods and services production: businesses and individual citizens also started doing their bit. In particular, production industries consolidated their adoption of environmental policies which are now translating into increasingly widespread examples of environmental sustainability, such as:
- the adoptions of best technologies and practices based on circular economy principles;
- the conservation and protection of land and biodiversity;
- the promotion of renewable energy sources and the efficient use of resources;
- optimal waste recycling and management (a practical example of this is the “ZERO. Verso un mondo senza plastica" (ZERO. Towards a plastic-free world) project, promoted by our company, to completely cut out the use of single-use plastic in all its branches across Italy);
- the promotion of sustainable mobility;
- the development of innovative environmental technologies.
Economic value and environmental sustainability goals
Three of the 17 SDGs outlined in 2030 Agenda set specific environmental sustainability targets:
- SDG 13, “Climate Action” (i.e. taking action to combat climate change)
- SDG 14, “Life Below Water” (i.e. protecting and restoring marine ecosystems and resources)
- SDG 15, “Life on Land” (i.e. sustainable use of the terrestrial ecosystem, from forest management to combating desertification and halting biodiversity loss).
Our company’s environmental policy, which was adopted in 1996 and is constantly updated, specifies action in all three of these areas, but 2015 also saw us make a formal commitment at the UN Headquarters to Climate Action (SDG 13) through the reduction of greenhouse gases as a result of a comprehensive plan to completely decarbonise our energy production by 2050. We are continuing to pursue that plan rigorously and in January 2020, we were named one of the top businesses on the CDP A-List for our work. CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) rates, manages and shares information on companies’ environmental impact on a global scale.
How environmental sustainability is measured
Setting goals also implies the need to measure the efficacy of the actions taken to achieve them. The need to measure the environmental performance of businesses resulted in the first internationally-recognised environmental sustainability indices being complied in the early 1990s. These can be divided into different types, specifically:
- descriptive indicators: these describe the reality of environmental problems and are expressed in physical units (e.g. tonnes of CO2 emissions);
- performance or efficacy indicators: the relationship between the result achieved and a target in terms of environmental policy (percentage of waste collected separately/separated waste collection target);
- efficiency indicators: the relationship between an environmental result achieved and the financial resources used to achieve it (reduction of atmospheric emissions/cost of structural and/or managerial interventions);
- overall well-being indicators, which measure overall sustainability (for example, environmental impact).
Including sustainability in growth strategies is now a competitive advantage: a business that puts environmental, social and economic sustainability at the centre of its decision-making is considered more reliable, less risky and thus capable of producing long-term value. This is because, to paraphrase the King of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, creating value without ruining the Earth’s resources is the most beautiful form of investment you could wish for.