The history of Sustainability

There are a lot of policies, practices and ongoing discussions on sustainability. It can be said that most of the policies made by governments and corporate institutions have their backbone etched in this one big question- IS THIS SUSTAINABLE? The answer to this question has triggered our project, Green Week, which is a sustainability oriented event for students organized by students. Our aim is to promote discussion on the subject and to create a meeting place for professionals and students interested in sustainable development in different fields.

HOW DID THIS ALL START?

If an observer says that the “ying to the yang” of sustainability is “environment” Personally, I do not think such an observer is wrong. Going down history lane, the western world has always been concerned with the relationship humans have with the environment. Therefore, if history says that sustainability concerns arose when the industrial age began, it is rightly so. To this end, let me take you on a journey starting from the 17th century.

1713 Hans Carl von Carllowitz suggested Nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use ) of forest sources. The term ewige Wald (eternal forest) was coined to refer to afforestation and the regeneration of growing timber.
1799 Robert Owen works to improve employee welfare and instituting an eight-hour day schedule in Scotland.
1811 The Luddite movement begins – workers protest automation in the textile industry causing loss of skilled jobs
1819 Great Britain’s Cotton Mills and Factories Act starts to regulate industrial production.
1833 Great Britain abolishes slavery and pressurises other nations to follow suit
1970 Wealthy business owners, such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie embark on expansive philanthropic efforts.
1920 After the First World War, International Labour Organisations adopts the first six International Labour Conventions which includes hours of work, maternity protection, minimum age, unemployment and night work for women and the young
1924 Five refinery workers die from heavy led toxicity at Standard Oil refinery. It then surfaces in the news that seven other workers died previously at two different plants. To this end, New York and other cities ban leaded gasoline
1937 Greenhouse effect is coined by Glen Thomas Trewartha in his book named “An Introduction to Weather and Climate”
1943 Robert Wood Johnson writes the J&J Credo - a statement of business principles that outlines the company’s responsibilities to its stakeholders
1944 International Monetary Fund and International bank for Reconstruction and Development (now, World bank) are formed, to help maintain post-war stability
1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted by the United Nations General Assembly
1956 The UK Parliament passes the Clean Air Act, in response to London’s Great Smog

Can you see the patterns? Let me draw your attention to some certain things – death caused by pollution, corporations taking responsibility in form of philantrophic activities, human rights, gender equality and fair trade. Do all these resonate to the three dimensions of sustainability spoken of in recent times? In the next phase of our history trip, one might notice that sustained actions were taken to the afore-mentioned problems by people. With this in mind, let us continue our journey…

1962 Rachel Carson’s book “The Silent Spring” linked agricultural pesticides to the damage of animal species and human health drawing attention to the environmental impact of synthetic pesticides.
1962 The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the world to the brink of nuclear war raising alarm about environmental issues.
1963 The Equal Pay Act is signed into law into the U.S prohibiting wage discrimination between men and women
1969 Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire due to industrial pollution. This lead to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency
1970 Milton Friedman argues that the main social responsibility of business is to increase profit for its shareholders
1970 First Earth Day is held. 20 million people participate in peaceful demonstrations in the United States.
1972 Stockholm Declaration leads to the establishment of many national environmental protection agencies and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)
1974 Avon Rubber Company agrees to an independent social audit by the Public Interest Research Centre. The report revealed the use of carcinogenic materials, which employees and unions were not aware of.
1976 Some companies make a decision to commit a proportion of their profits for philanthropy
1982 Due to the actions of some employees at Levi Strauss, the management agrees to join them and this began a thirty-year support for fighting HIV/AIDS
1984 The world’s worst industrial disaster occurs in India. At least 30 tonnes of highly toxic gas released from Union Carbide pesticide plant leaves 10,000 dead and 300,000 injured
1984 Edward Freeman considered the point at which Corporate Social Responsibility became part of mainstream management theory.
1985 The Antarctic ozone hole is discovered by British and American scientists. Two years later, 24 countries agree on the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.
1987 The UN’s Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future advocated for sustainable development. Sustainable development was then defined as “development that meets the present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The emergence of sustainable development arose out of fear that current practices would hinder the chances of present generation meeting their growing needs. Did you notice some organisations took steps towards being socially responsible? The journey has not ended, let’s continue to the third phase. This time, watch out for environmental pollution, industrial drivers (actions taken) and social framework of corporations. Let’s continue our journey once more…

1991 Sweden becomes the first nation to enact a carbon tax.
1992 172 governments participate in Rio Earth Summit focused on sustainability issues resulting in an agreement on the United Nations Framework Convention on climate Change.
1995 Royal Dutch Shell faces controversies over the execution of the “Ogoni Nine” by the Nigerian Military, and the decommissioning of the Brent Spar oil buoy in the North Sea. Three years later, Shell publishes its first sustainability report, “Profit and Principles – does there have to be a choice?”
1996 Unilever launches its first Environment Report
1997 Kyoto Protocol is adopted by the US and 121 countries with the aim to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
1998 Nike takes an active role in the foundation of the Fair Labour Association and publishes its first corporate responsibility report
1999 The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI) are launched, becoming the first mainstream sustainable investment indices
2000 The Millennium development Goals are launched by the UN to be achieved by 2015
2000 The first full version of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines is released.
2002 The Johannesburg Stock Exchange becomes the world’s first exchange to require listed companies to report on sustainability.
2003 Companies respond to the first Carbon Disclosure Project survey, which mobilises investors to demand the disclosure of data on corporate carbon emissions.
2006 California imposes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, first state in the Us to do so. The next year, EU agrees to cut CO2 emissions by twenty percent in 2020 compared to its 1990 levels.
2011 The Occupy Wall Street Movement converges on New York’s financial district to protest economic inequality.
2014 The EU issues a Directive on non-financial reporting, requiring disclosure on environmental, social and governance matters.
2014 Singapore enacts the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, permitting the government to criminalise companies for environmental pollution.
2014 India’s CSR law requires companies to ive 2% of their profits to social causes.
2015 Paris Climate Agreement sets a global goal of limiting global warming to below 2oC
2015 The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are launched.
2017 The UK introduces mandatory reporting on the gender pay gap, applying to all companies with more than 250 employees in the UK

This time, people started addressing the wrongdoings of the industrial companies , governments start taking actions to becoming both environmentally and socially sustainable (Sweden takes the lead by introducing carbon tax). Very close to the 21st century, companies started publishing environment report. Then came the millennial and sustained laws to push sustainability took their toll. In other words, seeds that have been planted in over four decades started having branches. These branches are producing the fruits evident in 2017 in which companies have gone past Corporate Social Responsibility referring to charity and treatment of workers and stakeholders but seeing the inclusiveness of sustainable practices in their ways of working. The governmental institutions have taken a stronger stance in sustainable development pushing corporate transparency in all sectors.

From the 17th century till date, sustainability has been evolving and shaping the future we dream of. What is your role today towards sustainability in the social, economic and technological aspects?

That was a brief introduction to the history of sustainability. If you are interested in recent development in this field and how biggest Swedish companies work with it – join us for Green Week on 27th of April to 8th of May. More information will be published on THS Future Facebook page soon. Stay tuned

Author: Oluchi Monwe together with Green Week and THS Future

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