In today's society, there is a prevalent awareness and a growing level of comfort with the idea and terminology of sustainability. From coffee shops encouraging reusable cups to corporations reporting on the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices, we understand its meaning and the terminology used to describe it.


However, go back 40 years, and the term "sustainability" was hardly ever used. Sustainability is a term most often used in business to highlight financial health and longevity. But this wasn't because today's idea of "sustainability" didn't exist. Sustainability isn't some trendy, modern invention — it's a centuries-old idea with changing terminologies over different periods of human history.  As the environmental impact of industrialization grew in awareness, and business growth was at times contrary to conservation and efficient resource use, the term's definition expanded. 


The Beginning of Sustainability 

Historical examples as far back as ancient Egypt highlight that the idea of balancing the natural environment and human growth was understood. This idea remained present throughout society mainly because of the immediate benefits it provided society.  


For example, throughout the agricultural revolution in the 1700s, crop rotations were popularized to preserve soil fertility and ensure food security. At the time, higher crop yields were a direct benefit, yet the science behind why it worked was unknown. Now we understand that rotating crops allows natural minerals and nutrients to build up and helps balance human agriculture and the natural environment — a form of sustainability.  


Environmental Awakening: The 50's and 60's 

The idea remained relatively unchanged until the 1950s when public awareness of humans' impact on the environment began to grow. This decade laid the groundwork for modern sustainability concerning natural resource conservation and efficient land use.  


The 1960s marked a notable shift, with environmental sustainability gaining more prominence. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," published in 1962, awakened the masses to the consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use and environmental degradation. This period saw sustainability being more associated with ecological preservation and the realization that human activities could significantly impact the environment. 


The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s also created the intersection of sustainability with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). DEI wasn't directly linked with environmental sustainability, but social sustainability started garnering attention. Communities sought equitable opportunities, inclusivity, and diversity, fostering a social environment where all could thrive and contribute to societal progress. 


Sustainable Development Comes into Focus: The 70's and 80's 

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of 'sustainable development' as a central concept. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) in 1972 highlighted the importance of aligning economic development with environmental preservation, marking a significant milestone in global sustainability discourse. The term 'sustainability' began to gain traction, denoting the need for responsible growth strategies that respect ecological limits. 


The 1980s were marked by a pivotal moment: the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. This report, titled "Our Common Future," popularized the term "sustainable development," defining it as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."  


This period is also when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) became more mainstream in business. CSR grew from an academic idea on the ethical considerations and the social impacts of business operations to a strategic means to gain a competitive advantage. Companies began aligning their business strategies with social and environmental causes, seeing CSR as a moral responsibility and something that could drive business success and consumer loyalty. 


The Dawn of Modern Sustainability: The 90'S 

In the 1990s, many of the terms we think of in modern business sustainability came into existence.  


Energy Star, the U.S. EPA program for energy efficiency in consumer products, was developed and became a symbol of energy-saving and sustainable practices. Today, it remains a crucial component of sustainable design and is one pathway to qualify for energy efficiency benefits from the government. 


For developers, the establishment of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1993 helped catalyze the green building movement. USGBC championed sustainable building practices and ultimately created the first draft of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in the mid-1990s. LEED has continued to play a pivotal role in pushing the real estate industry toward sustainability by setting benchmarks for building design and construction. 


During this same period, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was developed as one of the first frameworks to facilitate ESG reporting. While still in its early form, it helped organizations measure and report their economic, environmental, and social performance. 


Rapid Growth: The 2000's 

The turn of the millennium witnessed a dramatic increase in the scope and complexity of sustainability-related policies.  


Corporate sustainability saw a significant boost with the release of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) in 2000, which is a voluntary commitment by business leaders to implement sustainable policies and work towards UN goals. Today, over 16,000 companies have committed to the UNGC. Following the development of the UNGC, the term that is now synonymous with corporate sustainability, "ESG," was first used 


Organizations like the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB) and CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) emerged to support the growth in corporate sustainability commitments, focusing on enhancing transparency and engagement on climate-related disclosures and environmental impacts. 


Sustainability Matures: The 2010's and Beyond 

In the last decade, the idea of sustainability in both the corporate and social sense has been reaching maturity.  


It has been marked by an explosion of robust frameworks and standards driving sustainability across sectors. Initiatives like the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) surfaced, underlining the specificity and relevance of sustainability disclosures, and optimizing them for investor relevance. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) also underwent maturation, refining its standards to bolster the quality and comparability of sustainability disclosures. 


The advent of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) delineated a universal trajectory towards inclusive prosperity and sustainability. New metrics and evaluative tools like the Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) ESG ratings also emerged, becoming instrumental in assessing companies' ESG performance. Bodies like the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) strengthened the architecture of sustainability reporting, fostering a more integrated and comprehensive representation of organizational performance and risks. 


The USGBC's LEED program has undergone several updates throughout this period and now encompasses over 140,000 certified projects globally. Along with this, other green building certifications like the WELL Building Standard have entered the real estate sector, supporting the growing demand for green and sustainable development that also focuses on human wellness.  


Navigating the Evolving World of Sustainability 

As sustainability has matured, it has expanded from solely having an environmental focus to including business impacts on society. It is a multifaceted concept that can be challenging to implement correctly, yet also a necessity for businesses to consider. It is an idea that consumers, investors, and government officials are increasingly focusing on. Not applying sustainability in your business is a liability and a poor business decision. 


Luckily, consultants like Emerald Built Environments specialize in helping companies get up to speed on current sustainability standards and best practices. Learn how we can help your business capitalize on sustainability. 

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