Sustainability is one of the key initiatives on the EU Commission’s agenda for 2016. It is therefore useful to recall what sustainability is all about, writes Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala.
The European Commission is preparing the next steps for the sustainable European future beyond 2020. The initiative is connected to the review of the Europe 2020 strategy, as well as to the implementation of the global Sustainable Development Goals launched by the United Nations.
In this context, I would like to share my views on some of the most fundamental aspects of this challenging and fascinating topic.
3 interdependent dimensions of sustainability
First of all, it is crucial for the decision-makers to consider economic, social and environmental aspects as inseparable and interdependent components of sustainability.
The connections between these three are in principle very logical: Economic activity generates work and revenues for the society, hereby creating ground for social sustainability, while environmental elements act as a driver for renewed growth.
Secondly, sustainability is a way of thinking – it is a mindset. It calls for taking all the three dimensions into account whenever, wherever and whatever decisions are being made.
The Commission, too, emphasizes an integrated approach in materialising sustainable development. In practice, however, it is often given a restricted meaning and role. In the Commission’s program, for instance, sustainability is introduced as one item among others. And if you look at the website, you find Sustainable Development as a part of Environmental Policies.
21st century thinking on sustainability
In order to get forward we should overcome certain misinterpretations:
• As far as sustainable deveploment is seen as a separate entity, we are on a wrong track. In that case, there is a risk of missing the true magnitude of sustainability.
• Sustainable development is neither a matter of only certain themes or phenomena, such as circular economy. There are not “sustainable development issues” and “other issues”. Being a way of thinking, sustainability applies to everything.
• Furthermore, if sustainability is considered to be related to less than all the 3 dimensions, it is a torso. In the past, it has been often linked to environmental affairs only. You may also hear fruitless debate on which one is more important: social or environmental sustainability? The economic dimension again is easily ignored even though its role is most crucial.
To conclude, my answer to the question of the title is the following: Now at the latest – after the 25 years’ path of sustainable development processes – we should be approaching the ideal situation where explicit sustainable development programs are no longer needed.
Instead, every program by every institution and organisation should be a sustainable development program as such. This is the approach which many companies have already adopted or are actively striving for. I hope this is something the European decision-makers would also consider when preparing their next strategies and programs.