Environmental sustainability: development that respects the planet

Environmental sustainability: development that respects the planet


What does environmental sustainability mean?

Environmental sustainability indicates a system capable of combining the production of goods and services with environmental protection.

Today, environmental sustainability is considered an essential starting point for defining a new operational approach to business models. It is an evolution that comprises more than half a century of history, from the first environmental movements to the establishment of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda

The concept of environmental sustainability is inextricably linked to that of environmental protection, but in recent years it has undergone a radical evolution, having started out focused almost entirely on ecological factors before expanding to a broader vision that takes into consideration economic and social aspects in addition to the environmental ones.

In fact, in the scientific world, the term environmental sustainability indicates a set of economic, production and social mechanisms, conditions and best practices capable of combining the development of goods and services with the protection of the environment. Because it is not only our activities but also our lives that depend on the environment, it is necessary to treat it with respect and care, thinking about meeting the needs of the present from a perspective capable of ensuring that future generations can also enjoy the same opportunities and resources.

The term “sustainability” was originally presented during the first United Nations conference on the environment in 1972, before being officially coined in 1987 with the publication of the so-called Brundtland Report. The 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 realization that our planet’s resources are not infinite and thus need to be preserved with care, without wastefulness, while respecting ecosystems and biodiversity.


Why is environmental sustainability important?

Environmental sustainability aims to protect ecosystems and natural resources to ensure the health and well-being of people, both now and in the future.

Because of this, many dynamics and a wide range of elements gravitate around the concept of environmental sustainability. Through these, on the one hand, a harmonious relationship between the environment and the economy is to be achieved. On the other hand, they encompass the concepts of peace and social inclusion, equality and respect for diversity, technological innovation and civic education.

Therefore the meaning of 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 make.

Types of sustainability  

It is possible to identify three types of sustainability: environmental, economic and social.

Environmental sustainability is based on the responsible use of natural resources. Economic sustainability focuses on the ability to increase people’s material well-being. And finally, social sustainability aims to create a model of civic coexistence based on security, health and justice.

In short, economic and social sustainability are also dependent on environmental sustainability. The reasons for the environment are not in contradiction to those for the economy. Actually, the opposite, because fostering the sustainable development of society means spreading prosperity to more people, creating new opportunities for growth and security in terms of employment, and increasing access to goods, services and consumption.

Since the economy plays a fundamental role in determining the degree of security and confidence with which citizens view a model of civic coexistence, environmental sustainability also becomes a decisive tool for countering phenomena such as energy poverty, discrimination, marginalization and social exclusion.

When it comes to environmental, economic and social sustainability, it is impossible to make a firm distinction between the three categories. In fact, environmental sustainability was created with the specific purpose of encompassing these concepts in a virtuous circle where, ideally, they are put in a position to progress in parallel with each other. They are not in competition but in proactive collaboration, where the achievements of one sector become an opportunity to inspire new methods of wide-ranging, shared progress in others as well.


Earth Day is more than 50 years old

On April 22, 1970, in the United States, 20 million environmentalists mobilized to raise government and public awareness about the need to protect our natural resources. This was the very first Earth Day, which was later ratified by the United Nations. 

More than 50 years later, it has become a global event involving 193 countries worldwide. Today the Earth Day Network is relaunching the challenge to find new solutions to the question of how we can contribute to environmental sustainability and reduce the impact of our lifestyle on the planet. The answer right now is a developmental model capable of maintaining a balance between respect for the environment and socio-economic progress through long-term strategies such as:

  • recognizing 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 eco-design focused on the environment;

  • mitigating the effects of climate change.


From Agenda 21 to the SDGs: actions for environmental sustainability

The first global program with eco-sustainable policies 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 then further broadened the scope of the plan of action with the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a framework of actions and targets designed to improve the life of people all over the world and safeguard the planet’s ecosystems.

So, beginning in the 1990s, not only did governments start adopting protective regulations and tools to evaluate the impact of industrial activities and the production of goods and services but businesses and individual citizens also started doing their part.


Examples of environmental sustainability

In particular, production chains have consolidated their adoption of environmental policies which now translate into increasingly widespread examples of environmental sustainability, such as:

  • the adoption of best practices and technologies 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;

  • the development of sustainable production and consumption models for the agribusiness sector;

  • recycling and optimized waste management (a practical example of this is the “ZERO. Verso un mondo senza plastica" (Zero, aiming for a plastic-free world) project, promoted by our Group to completely eliminate single-use plastics in all branches across Italy);

  • the development of innovative technologies for the environment;

  • the choice of eco-friendly alternatives over fossil fuels for public and private mobility.


The current situation in Italy and the European Union

Within the European context, environmental sustainability has held a central position in the policies of EU member states for many years. Numerous national governments have set clear targets to guide EU development and environmental policy with a strategy that extends all the way to 2050. It is supported by research, regulatory, and funding programs aimed at protecting, conserving and improving Europe’s natural capital while at the same time transforming the continent’s economy into a low CO2-emissions model through an increasingly widespread diffusion of renewable energy.

Overseeing this collective effort is the European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU body established with the goal of creating a network to monitor environmental conditions in Europe, to identify shared policies for action against climate change, and to encourage proactive collaborations that extend beyond Europe’s borders, fostering the sharing of data and risk assessments on which individual governments can base their own environmental sustainability policies.

In Italy, these policies are supported and launched in the 2030 Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), which aims to radically change our country’s energy and environmental policy. The project works in five macro-areas of action, deployed in an integrated strategy, that touches on all the critical factors of environmental sustainability: decarbonization, energy efficiency and security, economic development, research and innovation, and competitiveness.


Projects and regulatory framework

We can say that EU citizens benefit from some of the world's highest standards of environmental sustainability, and this is due to far-reaching strategies that have been launched in years past to avert risks related to climate change and environmental degradation.

Among these, the most important is surely the European Green Deal, with one-third of NextGenerationEU recovery plan investments and the EU's seven-year budget allocated to it. The European Green Deal has various objectives, with the aim of eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (a goal that our Group plans to achieve 10 years early), the emergence of an economic system that doesn’t lead to resource consumption and environmental damage, with people as a central factor in coming up with the targeted policies and goals. This is to be achieved by involving individual countries – those that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by at least 55 percent as compared to 1990 levels – in joint proposals on the climate, energy, transportation, and taxation.

In Italy, environmental sustainability strategies are based mainly on two initiatives: Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza (PNRR) (National Recovery and Resilience Plan) and the Strategia Nazionale per lo Sviluppo Sostenibile (SNSvS) (National Strategy for Sustainable Development).  Specifically, the latter responds to the commitments signed by Italy in September 2015 and implements the directives of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The SNSvS  - the result of an extensive process involving institutions and civil society, carried out by the Ministry of Environment in close collaboration with the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Economy – takes on the four guiding principles of the 2030 Agenda. These are integration, universality, transformation, and inclusion, serving as the inspiration for five areas of action, the so-called "5Ps": People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership. There is an additional area, a sixth principle, dedicated to drivers for sustainability, which are necessary elements for transformation.

Environmental sustainability index of nations

As with any scientific process involving analysis and intervention, environmental sustainability must be based on objective parameters that can highlight progress and problems, areas for improvement, new tools, and avenues for development.

The most important of these indicators is undoubtedly the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a tool created to measure a country's degree of environmental sustainability that looks at 40 performance indicators in 11 different categories, ranging from climate change to environmental health to the vitality of ecosystems. 

Created by Yale University and Columbia University starting with the Pilot Environmental Performance Index, first published in 2002 with the goal of integrating and monitoring environmental goals set by the United Nations, the EPI is a dynamic tool, with metrics and data that evolve as science and technology advances.

Furthermore, the EPI publishes a constantly updated ranking of 180 countries based on their environmental performance, providing a highly detailed overall picture of the evolution of environmental sustainability around the world, and practical guidance for countries aspiring to move toward a sustainable future.

How environmental sustainability is measured

Environmental sustainability can be calculated looking to objective, transparent metrics adopted to analyze and highlight progress, areas for improvement, or critical issues.


Indicators for measuring the environmental impact of companies

Setting objectives for environmental sustainability 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-recognized 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. tons 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).

Today, environmental sustainability is an integral part of the strategies of companies looking to have a competitive advantage; a business that puts environmental, social and economic sustainability at the center of its decision-making is considered more reliable, less risky and thus capable of producing value over the long term. 


Our corporate policy in line with environmental sustainability goals

Three of the 17 SDGs outlined in 2030 Agenda set specific environmental sustainability targets:

  • SDG 13, taking action to combat climate change

  • SDG 14, protecting and restoring marine ecosystems and resources

  • SDG 15, sustainable use of the earth’s ecosystem, from forest management to combating desertification and halting biodiversity loss.

Our environmental policy (adopted back in 1996 and continuously updated) provides for action in all three of these areas, but, in 2015,we made a formal commitment to the UN to contribute to the fight against climate change (SDG 13) through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by defining a path to complete decarbonization of its industrial processes by 2040. This is a commitment we’ve never stopped pursuing, and in January 2020, it put us on CDP’s A List as one of the best companies. CDP is an organization that measures, manages, and shares information regarding the environmental impact of companies on a global scale.



This is a concept that first came about in 1972 and was defined in 1987 by the so-called Brundtland Report as a development strategy that respects the current and future needs of people while safeguarding the planet's resources, ecosystems and biodiversity.

While environmental eco-sustainability aims to preserve natural resources and the well-being of the planet (including through private initiatives and civic education about conscious consumption), environmental sustainability aims to identify tools and methods to foster sustainable development of economies in line with the needs of the planet, through concrete initiatives and shared, wide-ranging strategies.

To come up with a development model capable of protecting the material needs of people and the equilibrium and well-being of the environment, through the conscious and intelligent use of natural resources today and tomorrow, without damaging ecosystems and biodiversity. This is to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities as previous generations.

Environmental sustainability is the most effective way to protect the well-being of animals and plants, and also the health of us humans. Imagine having a beautiful garden full of flowers and trees. To ensure that it always remains beautiful and full of life, we need to take good care of it: water the plants when they are thirsty, expose them to the sun they need, and also remove weeds that might damage them. The Earth is our big garden and we are the gardeners. We need to use energy and water wisely, collect trash and recycle it. We are all part of a big team and every small action serves to make our Planet a better place for everyone.

Facilitating the sustainable development of society means extending material well-being to more people, including in poor or developing countries; creating new opportunities for growth and stability in terms of employment, especially for young people; and increasing access to quality and environmentally friendly goods and services.