Sustainable Development Definition: Historical Background and Examples (2023)

What is the definition of sustainable development? How has sustainability evolved and changed throughout the years and what are its most important milestones? What shapes sustainable development today?

The Official Definition Of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.The “official” definition of sustainable development was developed for the first time in the Brundtland Report in 1987.

Specifically, sustainable development is a way of organizing society so that it can exist in the long term. This means taking into account both the imperatives present and those of the future, such as the preservation of the environment and natural resources or social and economic equity.

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How Did The Idea Of Sustainable Development Get Relevant?

The industrial revolution is connected to the rise of the idea of sustainable development. From the second half of the 19th century, Western societies started to discover that their economic and industrial activities had a significant impact on the environment and the social balance. Several ecological and social crises took place in the world and rose awareness that a more sustainable model was needed.
Here are some examples of the economic and social crises that shook the world in the twentieth century:

  • 1907: the American banking crisis
  • 1923: the crisis of American hyperinflation
  • 1929: the financial crisis of the 1930s begins
  • 1968: the worldwide protests against bureaucratic elites
  • 1973 and 1979: oil shocks
  • 1982: the debt shock of developing countries

And some examples of ecological crises:

  • 1954: Rongelap nuclear fallout
  • 1956: Mercury crisis of Minamata
  • 1957: Torrey Canyon oil spill
  • 1976: Seveso disaster
  • 1984: Bhopal disaster
  • 1986: Chernobyl nuclear disaster
  • 1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill
  • 1999: Erika disaster
  • But also: global warming, air pollution, the issue of the ozone layer, the loss of biodiversity

The Tragedy of Commons And Sustainable Development [1968]

Sustainable Development Definition: Historical Background and Examples (1)
In 1968 the ecologist and philosopher Garret Hardin wrote an essay entitled the tragedy of the commons. He argued that if individuals act independently, rationally and focused on pursuing their individual interests, they’d end up going against the common interests of their communities and exhaust the planet’s natural resources.

In this way, human free access and unlimited consumption of finite resource would extinguish these same resources. Hardin believed that since man is compelled to procreated unlimitedly the Earth resources would eventually get overexploited. To his eyes, mankind needed to radically change its way of using common resources to avoid a disaster in the future – this would be the way to keep on a sustainable development track.

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Limits To Growth And Sustainable Development [1972]

A few years after Hardin’s essay, in 1972, Meadows et al., commissioned by the Club of Rome, ran a computer simulation that aimed to predict the consequences of what could happen in a planet with limited resources.

The interactions between 5 different dimensions – world population growth, industrialization, pollution generation, food production, and nonrenewable resource depletion – were analyzed, considering a scenario where these variables grew exponentially and technology’s ability to increase resources was linear.

The strongest ending scenario was that an economic and social collapse would happen by the end of the 21st century if man imposes no limits to growth. After more than 4 decades, these predictions seem to be right when it comes to pollution and it’s consequences – threatening sustainable development.

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1st UN Conference On The Environment And Sustainable Development [1972]

As the world’s knowledge of global politics evolved the first historical conferences were organized. In 1972, it took place in Stockholm the UN Conference on the environment – the first big world leaders meeting organized by the UN to discuss the human impact on the environment and how it was related to economic development. One of the main goals of this gathering was to find a common outlook and common principles to inspire and guide the world’s population to preserve the “human environment”.

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The Human Development Index And Sustainable Development [1980]

Sustainable Development Definition: Historical Background and Examples (2)
Once the idea that our planet had limits that needed to be respected grew, together with the idea that progress isn’t only about economic growth, integrated solutions started to develop – as is the case with the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is nowadays a statistical tool that measures countries’ economic and social achievements.

To do so, it uses dimensions such as health, education, financial flows, mobility or human security, among others. Every year the UN Development Programme ranks countries based on the HDI report released together with their annual report. It works as a periodic way of monitoring the development levels of countries.

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HDI & The Ecological Footprint – Achieving Sustainable Development

Ideally, humankind should get to a point where at least the minimum HDI is achieved and live below the maximum ecological footprint per capita. Living above the minimum HDI would guarantee that human needs such as education or health are satisfied.

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An ecological footprint represents the maximum limit of consumption per person according to Earth’s ecological capacity. Living below it wouldn’t compromise the future generations, as the planet would be able to regenerate itself. If we could manage to keep above the minimum HDI and below the maximum ecological footprint per capita (a number that is decreasing as the human population increases) we’d be on track for a sustainable future.

But the fact is that every year the Earth overshoot day comes earlier. This day represents the date when humankind gets in debt with the planet. Why? Because our demand for ecological resources in a given year has been exceeding what the planet can regenerate in that same year.

We’re keeping this deficit because we’re using more ecological resources than the planet can handle to lose. At the same time, we’re also not taking proper care of our waste. We’re dealing with it in a linear way, in opposition to nature, where everything follows a circular approach. Today’s consumption habits are a big threat to sustainable development.

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(Video) 271 Sustainable Development: Definition and History - Lecture 10

The Brundtland Report And Sustainable Development [1987]

Sustainable Development Definition: Historical Background and Examples (3)
The Brundtland report, also known as <Our Common Future>, gave the most recognized and widely accepted definition of the term <sustainable development> in 1987. Following this report, “the human ability to ensure that the current development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was the first widely accepted definition of sustainable development.

The World Commission on the Environment and Development also stood out that sustainable development needed to consider that developing has limitations. According to the organization, the “present state of technology and the social organization on environmental resources, together with the limited ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities” impose limitations on sustainable development.

Climate Change & Sustainable Development [1988]

As the consciousness about the impact that climate change could have on the planet and on human life grew, the International Panel on Climate Change was created by the UN Development Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. It’s purpose was (and still is) to develop and share knowledge about the impact of human activities on climate change. It also aims to explore the causes, consequences, and ways of fighting climate change.

CO2 and methane are gases that exist to help the Earth keep its ideal temperature and guarantee life as we know it. Nonetheless, the excessive production of these gases leads to an increase in the planet’s temperature. This happens because part of the heat the Earth irradiates and that’d go to space keeps trapped in the atmosphere.

  • More info in our article: the history and the impact of climate change.

The Triple Bottom Line & Sustainable Development [1994]

The triple bottom line is an important assumption that’s part of the foundations of sustainable development. It was first used by John Elkington, the founder of a sustainability consultancy firm.

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This expression means that companies should consider 3 different bottom lines in their businesses – and not only, as was usual at the time (and still is in many companies today), care about the profit and loss account. This means that organizations should also measure how socially responsible the operations across their value-chain are.

In addition, Elkington combined a third concern: that companies also needed to measure their environmental impact on the planet. In the end, the idea is business needs to be concerned about its impact on people and planet – and not only finance and profit.

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The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment And Sustainable Development [2001]

Sustainable Development Definition: Historical Background and Examples (4)
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was a 4 years-long investigation that started in 2001 and was requested by the UN. Over 1200 researchers gathered to assess the consequences that ecosystems’ changes had on human well-being. Finding the scientific basis for action needed to improve the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems was another goal.
The main findings of the investigation were:

  • Humans have changed ecosystems more quickly and widely than ever before. This resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible biodiversity loss;
  • The changes made to ecosystems improved human well-being and the economy but have harmed the planet and society. It wasn’t only biodiversity decreasing at a high rate. Poverty was also still affecting many communities and climate change increased the risk of nonlinear changes;
  • The degradation of ecosystems services would probably get worse over the 21st century;
  • The changes needed to preserve the ecosystem’s degradation and meet the increasing demand for services could still be met. Nonetheless, it would involve significant changes in policies across the public and private sectors.
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Sustainable Development Today

Today’s framework on sustainable development is quite strong although there is still a huge way to go. The latest IPCC report demonstrated that big changes will need to happen quickly regarding the reduction of CO2 emissions to keep the Earth’s temperature below 2ºC and prevent its devastating impacts.

There are many actors working with different audiences in different areas of sustainability. They share the same goal – to raise awareness on this topic and to create conditions for it to grow and develop. One of the main players is theUnited Nations, where different teams actively work on multiple campaigns such as #beatplasticpollution or #solvedifferent, apart from organizing the meetings between the world leaders.

On the business side, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) helps its member companies to accelerate their businesses transition to create a sustainable world. There are also some certifications that reward (mostly through a stamp recognition) the businesses with the best practices for the planet, such as the B-Corp movement, the Rainforest Alliance, the Fairtrade Foundation or the Conscious Capitalism Movement.

At the same time, entities like the Elen MacArthur Foundation are opening the way when it comes to the circular economy and how societies and businesses can align how they use natural resources with the way nature does it. Aligning businesses’ operations across their supply chains is also allowing different and ecological business models to develop – such as growing mushrooms from coffee leftovers.

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Image credits to organic nature on Shutterstock, wind turbines on Shutterstock, natural ecosystems on Shutterstock


What is sustainable development and its history? ›

Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The “official” definition of sustainable development was developed for the first time in the Brundtland Report in 1987.

What is sustainable development define with an example? ›

The two examples of sustainable development are: 1.Solar energy: Harnessing the solar energy to reduce pollution in the environment. 2.Crop Rotation : Planting different types of crops on the same land on a rotational basis for improving soil fertility.

Why sustainable development is important explain with example? ›

Answer: It is the goal of sustainable development to meet current needs without sacrificing those of the future. Using more groundwater than replenished by rain would be an example of overusing this resource. Using too much of a resource means that it will not be available to future generations.

What is the history of sustainable development goals? ›

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were developed at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2012. The purpose was to create a set of global goals, related with the environmental, political and economic challenges that we face as humanity.

Who first defined sustainable development? ›

At the start of the 1970s the term 'sustainable development' was coined, probably by Barbara Ward (Lady Jackson), founder of the International Institute for Environment and Development (see Ward & Dubos 1972).

Which of these is an example of Sustainable development *? ›

Using recycled materials or renewable resources when building is an example of sustainable development. Building a new community in a previously undeveloped area without damaging the ecosystem or harming the environment is an example of sustainable development.

What is Sustainable development definition PDF? ›

sustainable development is "the ability to meet the needs of the present while. contributing to [meeting] the future generations' needs." Therefore, sustainable. development could be defined as “a pattern of economic growth in which resource use.

What are sustainable examples? ›

The foundations of environmental sustainability are: safeguarding water, saving energy, reducing waste, using recyclable packaging, limiting or eliminating the use of plastics, using sustainable transport, reusing paper and protecting flora and fauna.

What are the five importance of sustainable development? ›

Importance of Sustainable Development

All Countries should meet their basic needs of employment, food, energy, water, and sanitation. Everybody is rightful to a healthy, safe, and clean environment. This can be easily achieved by reducing pollution, poverty, and unemployment.

What are the 5 characteristics of sustainable development? ›

Characteristics of a Sustainable Community
  • Saved lives.
  • Reduced damage to property.
  • Reduced economic losses.
  • Minimized social disruption.
  • Ability of local government to resume operations quickly.
  • Shorter recovery period for the community.

What are the types of sustainable development? ›

The four pillars of sustainability
  • Human sustainability. Human sustainability aims to maintain and improve the human capital in society. ...
  • Social sustainability. ...
  • Economic sustainability. ...
  • Environmental sustainability.

When did the sustainable development started? ›

The initial concept of sustainable development was introduced in 1972 and was well embraced as a vision recognizing the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental issues.

Who is father of sustainable development? ›

Nikola Tesla : the father of sustainable development.

Where was the sustainable development explained for first time? ›

Sustainable development is a concept that appeared for the first time in 1987 with the publication of the Brundtland Report, warning of the negative environmental consequences of economic growth and globalization, which tried to find possible solutions to the problems caused by industrialization and population growth.

How do you define sustainable development essay? ›

To sum it up, sustainable development continuously seeks to achieve social and economic progress in ways which will not exhaust the Earth's finite natural resources. Thus, we must all develop ways to meet these needs so that our future generations can inherit a healthier and greener planet.

What is a real life example of sustainability? ›

Buying lunchboxes rather than relying on paper bags. Using dish cloths or rags to clean up messes instead of paper towels or wipes. Bringing reusable grocery bags to the store rather than taking plastic bags home. Refilling a reusable water bottle instead of purchasing single-use bottled water.

How many definitions of sustainable development are there? ›

There are over 100 definitions of sustainability and sustainable development, but the best known is the World Commission on Environment and Development's.

What is conclusion of sustainable development? ›

Conclusion: To conclude, it can be said that sustainable development brings out stability in the requirements of the environment. It makes the resources available for use for the future generations. Sustainable development is an amazing way to conserve the resources provided by nature.

What are the 3 types of sustainability? ›

The figure at the top of this page suggests that there are three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection and social equity.

What are the 5 types of sustainability? ›

Thus, the recommended Five Domains of Sustainability are Environment, Social/Culture, Technology, Economics, and Public Policy.

What are the characteristics of sustainable development? ›

The main features of sustainable development are as follows:
  • It improves the quality of human life.
  • It minimises the depletion of natural resources.
  • It teaches us to respect and care for all the life forms.
  • Checking the pollution levels.
  • Making arrangements so that the future generation are able to meet their own demands.

What are the benefits of sustainable development? ›

The three advantages of sustainable development are as follows: It helps in ensuring a better life for present and future generations. Lowers the impact on the environment by reducing air, water, and soil pollution. Helps in achieving long-term economic growth.

What are the 3 aims of sustainable development? ›

ECOSOC operates at the centre of the UN system's work on all three pillars of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental.

What are the 12 sustainable development principles? ›

1.5 The 12 Principles of Sustainable Engineering
1. Strive to ensure that material/energy inputs and outputs not hazardous(a) Reduce hazard. (b) Reduce exposure.
2. Waste minimization over waste management.Good design is creative about use of by-products.
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What are the main issues of sustainable development? ›

Some of these challenges include: climate change, energy consumption, waste production, threats to public health, poverty, social exclusion, management of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, and land use.

What is the most sustainable development? ›

Countries are ranked by their overall score. The overall score measures the total progress towards achieving all 17 SDGs. The score can be interpreted as a percentage of SDG achievement.
152 more rows

What is the history of sustainable development in India? ›

There are several laws which have been passed which include the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981. After Bhopal gas tragedy, government of India enacted the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986.

What is sustainable development history 8? ›

(iv) What is sustainable development? Answer: Balancing the need to use resources and also conserving them for the future is called sustainable development. The future of our planet and its people is linked with our ability to maintain and preserve the life support system that nature provides.

Which country has sustainable development first? ›


What are the 10 features of sustainable development? ›

The main features of sustainable development are as follows:
  • It improves the quality of human life.
  • It minimises the depletion of natural resources.
  • It teaches us to respect and care for all the life forms.
  • Checking the pollution levels.
  • Making arrangements so that the future generation are able to meet their own demands.

Who is the mother of sustainability? ›

Considered the “mother” of sustainable development, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland attributes her passions for public health, the environment, and political activism to her father, a doctor and cabinet minister. At the tender age of seven, Dr.

What are the 3 main focuses of sustainable development? ›

For sustainable development to be achieved, it is crucial to harmonize three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. These elements are interconnected and all are crucial for the well-being of individuals and societies.


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