A stab at defining ‘sustainability’

It is, I promise, broader than you think

Apurv Gupta
Jul 1, 2020 · 5 min read

My team and I at Accenture run an exciting project with the United Nations. We study opinion and performance data from thousands of companies and sit down, one-to-one, with more than a hundred CEOs every so often to understand their views on sustainability. Last year, we published these results at the UN General Assembly in New York.

In this article, I sharpen my pencil on trying to define ‘sustainability’ — as I have come to understand it, with the usual disclaimers that these are my views only and that this list is not necessarily exhaustive.

Thermal plant near Beijing, China

Sustainability is about what’s happening in the sky

The earth is warming.

We know it because we’ve been measuring the average global temperature since the 1880's when it was -0.18°C and it now stands at 0.98°C — that’s a 644% increase. We also know that this is increasing because of us- humans. We designed systems on the earth that release a great number of certain gases into the atmosphere — primarily carbon dioxide and methane — which are notorious for absorbing heat. Heat that is incoming from the sun and heat that is outgoing from the earth; creating a greenhouse effect.

Sustainability is about halting this warming process. Because, after a tipping point — which the UN estimates is 1.5°C — the earth begins becoming inhabitable: heatwaves across Asia and the Middle East would kill populations, we could see 4x as many wildfires from California to Australia, low crop yields will lead to hunger and malnutrition and coastal regions will submerge leading to mass migration inland. Every incremental increase after 1.5°C will spell disaster: at 2°C for instance, approx. 150 million people will die of air pollution alone, that’s the equivalent of 25 holocausts.

We are on track to hit 1.5°C in 10 years.

Chemical wash for clothes on the Yamuna River, New Delhi

Because of what’s happening down below on land

We are the problem.

Surely we’re doing something to stop these gasses from accumulating and heating the planet, right? Well, not fast enough. The systems we’ve designed on the Earth — from food to fashion—are all major contributors to the problem.

Let’s take one illustrative example: ¬70% of all these greenhouse gasses we release come from one source — the form of energy we use on earth, which is fossil fuel-based. Roughly, 15% of this is consumed by global transport, like your car. Hypothetically, to reduce that 15% to 0% (which would turn that 70% to 55%) we would need to electrify all transport, globally — how quickly are people buying electric vehicles (EV) around you, you tell me? … and, it’s not just about buying EVs, it’s about charging them with cleaner energy like renewables as well- Otherwise, what’s the point?

Sustainability is about changing these systems on land. The growth of our economy didn’t factor in balancing the living world, so we now have a situation where the tomato in your sandwich likely has more frequent flyer miles than you — does this seem right? This is not just about climate, we’re constantly pushing planetary boundaries to build bigger, better, cheaper at any cost.

Because we keep consuming, the system keeps producing.

Thick smog in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a lot of our cheap clothing is made

Sustainability is also about people

We’re not all the same.

The system has also only worked for a few: the richest 1% own 44% of the world’s wealth or, take this — just 26 billionaires own as much as the bottom 50% of the global population! This is madness.

This is not just about having more money, it’s about having a fighting chance at life — for proper nutrition and clean water, access to affordable healthcare, quality education, decent work and secure livelihoods. Inequality is also sexist: women across the world do unpaid care work which if valued, would be approx. $10.8 trillion annually — that’s 3x the size of the tech industry.

Sustainability is about levelling the playing field. By boosting incomes and capital accumulation of the bottom 50%; by adopting social protection schemes for the poorest and by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices that exasperate these inequalities.

Patients and families in the waiting area of a public hospital: Chandigarh, India

As equally, it is about the conditions of society

Our situations are not the same either.

Conflict, insecurity, weak institutions, limited access to justice and human rights abuses are real threats to millions every day. In 2018, 70 million people fled war, prosecution and conflict which has been the highest level recorded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in its 70-year history. The absence of peace and justice erodes transparency, accountability and human dignity: every 5 minutes, a child is killed by violence somewhere in the world and despite our technological advances, 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 never get officially recorded; depriving them of proof of legal identity that can protect their rights and access to social services.

Sustainability is about restoring peace and justice. Otherwise, it has a pervasive impact on society. People need to be free of fear from all forms of violence. Period. Building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions is a critical element of societal progress and economic development.

Photographs in the article were taken by Akash Ghai. Contributing edits made by Savera Aranya.

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