5. Beyond the Sustainability Industry


Three decades of thinking and action about sustainable development have generated an impressive array of achievements. Steve Bass identifies a ‘toolkit’ of nine components (Table 5.1).57

Table 5.1 Sustainable development toolkit

The ‘Three Pillars’ model: social, environmental, economic dimensions of sustainability; appears in the idea of ‘triple bottom line’ in business. Better expressed as three overlapping circles, as in the IUCN Programme 2005–8, adopted in 2005.
Legal principles: e.g., ‘polluter pays’; precautionary principle; prior informed consent.
International agreements: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto process, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
Plans and strategies: e.g., Agenda 21, Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, national sustainable development strategies.
Political forums and councils: UN Commission on Sustainable Development, national forums, local initiatives.
Tools for sustainability assessment, and for market, project and fiscal intervention: e.g., information, analysis, planning, management, deliberative and stakeholder tools.
Voluntary codes and standards: e.g., self-regulation by leading players or NGO initiatives in food, forestry, energy and mining sectors.
Tri-sector partnerships: government, civil society, business e.g., Marine Stewardship Council, Forest Stewardship Council.
Debate and research: pure and applied science, social science, management.

Source: Bass (2007).

These are real achievements, but they are limited in their reach. And, as Bass points out, much is missing. Standard ideas about how to achieve sustainability are fragmented, partial, often largely symbolic. Key conceptual framings of sustainability, like the ‘three pillars’ model, are flawed. This implies that trade-offs can always be made between environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability, a ‘weak’ as opposed to a ‘strong’ version of sustainability. Such trade-offs are routinely made, and are a major reason why the environment continues to be degraded and development does not achieve desirable equity goals. The three pillars cannot be treated as if they are equivalent. The economy is an institution that emerges from society, while the environment underpins both society and economy, the resources available on earth and the solar system effectively presenting a finite limit on human activity.

‘ideas about how to achieve sustainability are fragmented’

Conventional sustainability thinking provides ways of talking about the environment as an important policy issue, or about key actors within the world system. It does not suggest the need for any fundamental change in that system. Such an approach is the product of a growing ‘sustainability industry’. This has three elements.

First, there is the legion of environmental organizations founded over the last century, and especially since the 1960s. Some of these pursue a ‘green’ agenda (conservation of nature or biodiversity). Some pursue a ‘brown’ agenda (concern for the wider environment, or for the needs and rights of people in an environmental context). Most of these organizations are non-governmental, some are part of government, and some are inter-governmental. Their achievements are considerable, not least the success with which sustainability issues have been made part of international debate, national legislation and public policy since 1992.

Beside these environmental organizations (indeed often intimately linked with them) lies a parallel legion of private sector industries and organizations.

This corporate environmental sector is the second part of the sustainability industry. It is the existence of this sector that has driven the mainstreaming of sustainability into the market place. Since the establishment of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in 1990, leading global corporations have absorbed and worked with the concept of sustainability in a variety of novel ways. Few major corporate websites lack statements on the environment and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Many shareholder meetings include motions relating to the environment and human rights.

The third part of the sustainability industry is government, which locks together civil society and business in a dense institutional web of legislation and regulation. In developed countries, a process of ecological modernization has led to highly technical science-based environmental bureaucracies that set the terms of engagement between business and civil society, and between human society and nature. Ecological governance is critical to the achievements of the mainstream of sustainable development.

The achievements of the sustainability industry have been remarkable. Yet something has been lost. Like political spin-doctors in the technocratic democracies of Europe and North America, opinion leaders in the sustainable development industry offer inspiring promises of future adaptation, but they are often little more than nuanced interpretations of ‘business as usual’. As this industry has developed and professionalized, it has also tended to become sclerotic. As a result, much sustainability thinking has become path-dependent, locked into regulatory procedures and trapped by its own hopeful language of ‘win-win’. The environmental movement's very acceptance at corporate and government tables has made it harder to express sustainability's uncomfortable challenges, harder to speak truth to power.

The challenge is to find a new passion to address the challenges at the heart of the sustainability. What needs to be done, and how do we make it happen?

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