Ipsos Encyclopedia - Sustainable Development

The concept of Sustainable Development emerged for the first time in 1987 when the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published 'Our Common Future' aka the Brundtland Report.

sustainable developmentDefinition

​The concept of Sustainable Development emerged for the first time in 1987 when the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published 'Our Common Future' aka the Brundtland Report. This report outlined a 'global agenda for change' which recognised that the unprecedented pressure on the earth's resources, alongside future population growth, urban development and the growing global demand for resources, had the potential to lead to dire social, economic and environmental consequences. In turn, it outlined how environmental concerns must be bridged with social and economic development.

The Brundtland Report defined Sustainable Development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," a definition which has stood the test of time and remains the most popular way of defining the overarching aims of sustainable development globally.

Since the publication of the Brundtland Report numerous international declarations have built on it, including the Rio Declaration, Kyoto Protocol, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), RIO + 20 and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Most recently, in September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been agreed by all UN Member States.

Created with a 15-year time-frame, the SDGs are now the focal point for national and international development efforts globally. They consist of 17 goals and 169 associated targets which cross all three dimensions – social, environmental and economic – and seek to achieve people-centred development at every scale.

While they follow on from the Millennium Development Goals there are some notable differences. First, while the MDGs were deemed relevant only to the so-called 'developing world,', the SDGs apply to the whole world; this is recognised by the UN who no longer recognises the developed/developing dichotomy but the necessity for development in all nation states. However, there is a particular focus in the SDG era on reaching the poorest and most left behind, based on evidence that while progress has been made since the millennium, inequality is increasing in many countries. The concept of "leave no-one behind" is enshrined in the SDG declaration.

Second, there is a much stronger focus on the environment, from concerns about polluted oceans to depleted rainforests. While the MDGs were focused on extreme poverty, the SDGs cover the whole range of objectives from infrastructure and economic growth to climate change and conflict. Because of this wide range of themes, the SDGs are left purposefully ambiguous to encourage country-by-country led approaches which consider social, economic, environmental and political matters on the ground.

Whilst the concept of sustainable development and the SDGs are useful in theory, in practice global commitment has often fallen short. This is primarily related to the fear of short-term economic loss which means many countries are hesitant to commit; apparent with the USA withdrawal from the Paris agreement on Climate Change. This, coupled with the breadth of what's included in the SDGs means there is a high level of maneuverability by state actors when it comes to producing quantifiable commitments to these goals. Nevertheless, significant progress has already been made within the early stages of the SDG's life-span.

Ipsos Point Of View

​What does this mean for Ipsos?

Ipsos is working to ensure no voice is left unheard and that progress is made towards the goals of Sustainable Development. Our objectives include:

  • Track progress towards the SDG's
  • Make development cooperation more effective
  • Help governments improve their policies and services
  • Help private companies become more sustainable

We believe that by consolidating our already expansive work on sustainable development globally we can help clients and partners shape the sustainability agenda. At Ipsos we want to make sure that top quality primary data underpins the decisions that shape our world. And, crucially, we want to put people's voices at the heart of sustainable development, helping make it an inclusive and accountable process. Through bringing together world-class quantitative and qualitative research, alongside progressive communication strategies we continue to make sure our work stands out from that of our competitors.

Best reading

  • ​Birnbacher, D and Thorseth, M (ed) (2015) The Politics of Sustainability, Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge Studies in Sustainability, Routledge.
  • Chi, M (forthcoming 2018) Integrating Sustainable Development in International Investment Law, normative incompatibility, system integration and governance implications, Routledge Global Cooperation Series ,Routledge.
  • Chimakonam. J (ed) (Forthcoming 2018) African Philosophy and Environmental Conservation, Routledge Explanations in Environmental Studies, Routledge.
  • Holden, E, Linnerud, K, Baniser, D, Schwanitz, V and Wierling, A (eds) (Forthcoming 2018) The Imperatives of Sustainable Development: Needs, Justice, Limits, Oxford, Routledge.
  • Hopward, B, Mellor, M and O'Brian, G (2005) Sustainable Development: Mapping Different Approaches, Sustainable Development, Wiley Online
  • Norman, B (forthcoming 2018) Sustainable Pathways for our Cities and Regions, Planning with Planetary Boundaries, Routledge Studies in Sustainable Development, Routledge.
  • Pereira, L, McElroy, C, Littaye, A and Girard, A (2017) Food, Energy and Water Sustainability, Emergent Governance Strategies, Earthscan Studies in Natural Resource Management, Routledge.
  • Redclift, M and Springett, D (ed) (2015) Routledge International Handbook of Sustainable Development, Routledge International Handbooks, Routledge.
  • UN World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford, Oxford University Press

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