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What does “Sustainability” actually mean?

The term “sustainability” is ever-present in our everyday language – we encounter it in daily conversation, at school, at work, as well as in the media and in advertising.  And even though everyone has an understanding of sustainability and uses the word, the term is surprisingly ambiguous in its definition. 

If something is sustainable, then it is long-lasting, environmentally friendly, sensible, perhaps even reasonable – or simply “right” – according to the common understanding of the term. In most cases, the central aspect is the sustainable, environmentally friendly use of available resources.

Because only in this way can these resources be preserved in the long term and also be available to future generations. This applies to our raw materials, but also to very elementary matters such as clean air, water and fertile soil. 

Sustainability thus draws on ecological responsibility: the fundamentally mindful use of existing resources. Always aiming at the long-term preservation and natural renewal of the stock.

In short: behaving in daily life in such a way that a good life on this earth is also possible in the future.

Sustainability – a German ‘invention’?

At the beginning of the 18th century, Carl von Carlowitz coined the term in the face of an impending shortage of wood in Saxony: he demanded that only as much wood be felled as could grow back or be reforested. This principle became the foundation of German forestry.

But it was not until another 250 years later that this idea found new entry into international consideration: in 1972, the Club of Rome presented its legendary study on the “Limits to Growth,” thus giving the focus on sustainability a new, prominent boost.

1992: First international agreement

In 1992, Agenda 21, the first international agreement on climate change, was adopted at the environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro and signed by 172 countries.

This jointly endorsed action program, with specific recommendations for action, became the guiding principle of global environmental policy and has influenced our social, economic and ecological actions at all levels ever since. Under the motto “Think globally – act locally!” each of the signatory states was called upon to develop its own Agenda 21.

Ecological, economic and social sustainability

In Germany, the “Council for Sustainable Development” was founded in 2001. Its definition of sustainability is: “Sustainable development means taking environmental aspects into account on an equal footing with social and economic aspects. We must leave our children and grandchildren an intact ecological, social and economic fabric.”

Common to all definitions and agreements: the long-term sustainable coexistence of mankind and nature, which will determine all our lives today and above all in the future.

ESG: An acronym takes off

More and more often, we come across financial products that bear “ESG” in their title. These are investments that take sustainability criteria into account. The following examples explain what is behind the three criteria:

E for „Environmental“

The company produces in an environmentally friendly way, for example through filter systems or a waste-avoiding production method. Further criteria for companies are whether they use renewable energies or take into account the challenges of climate change.

 S for „Social“

The company creates fair social conditions for employees, for suppliers and for the communities in which it operates. This includes equal opportunities, compliance with gender and disability quotas, and further training opportunities.

G for „Governance“

Internal controls exist to ensure compliance with laws and rules and to avoid risks, transparent measures to combat corruption, or compensation for board members if they achieve sustainability targets.