June 15, 2007
SustainAbility Predicts How Sustainable Development Will Play Out Over Next Two Decades
by Bill Baue
Part two of this two-part article looks at a recent report from SustainAbility that projects four
scenarios of potential developments in sustainability over the next 20 years.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding (coinciding with the release of the Brundtland Report,
which coined the term "sustainable development"), UK-based think tank and consultancy SustainAbility published a report
projecting the future of sustainability over the next 20 years.
The report, entitled
Raising Our Game: Can We Sustain Globalization?, proposes four potential scenarios (based on
a card game metaphor) for how the future will unfold depending on how business attends to social
and environmental sustainability. Each scenario corresponds to a card suit (Clubs, Diamonds,
Spades, and Hearts) on a matrix with environmental wins and losses on the horizontal axis and
social wins and losses on the vertical axis.
"[The Hearts scenario] is the future that
Commission pointed us toward," the report states, as it balances environmental sustainability
with social development. It projects a scenario where a pandemic slows global transportation,
forcing simultaneous attending to human health and curbing environmental impacts. The crisis
inspires creative destruction and innovation that ultimately leads to true sustainability.
The report acknowledges that the "concept of sustainable development has stood the test of time
since it was first injected into the political mainstream in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission,"
though the marriage between sustainability and development has always contained tension.
The beauty of the SustainAbility report is that the Spades and Clubs scenarios play out the
potential consequences of over-weighting environmental sustainability at the cost of social
stability, or over-weighting development in ways that compromise environmental viability. In other
words, the report illustrates the pitfalls of unbalanced sustainable development.
Clubs world, social equity is traded for a degree of environmental quality--albeit enjoyed by a
sub-set of the global population," the report states. "Think of the evolution of a new sustainable
energy platform where billions are priced out of the emerging green market."
in the Spades world social equity broadly trumps environmental sustainability, whatever we may
intend," the report continues. "Current forms of development and consumerist lifestyles spread,
but at a growing cost to the environment."
The SustainAbility team, led by founder John
Elkington, excels at distilling complex trends, listing various series of discrete elements.
Defining globalization, they list four drivers (open markets, technology and connectivity,
developing country prominence, and the growth of multinationals), as well as seven attributes
(capital revolutionaries, maquila planet, growing divides, multiculturalism's discontents, climate
insecurity, governance vacuums, and "blessed unrest," the concept recently coined by Paul Hawken to
describe the movement forwarded by environmental and social justice organizations.)
Continuing the numbers game, SustainAbility posits six dimensions encompassed in the four
future scenarios, encapsulated in the acronym G.A.M.B.L.E. (growth, acceleration, mainstreaming,
barriers, leadership, and equity.) SustainAbility's party line on economic growth is a bit hard to
nail down. On one page, the report notes that "economic growth has major sustainability
On another, it maintains that "[c]urrent economic growth is
unprecedented--and the potential opportunities are huge," no doubt causing some readers to cringe
at the notion of sustainable development as a cash cow and others to welcome a business case for
sustainability. However, SustainAbility distinguishes between capitalizing on the opportunities
presented by sustainability, and actually achieving sustainability.
"Many companies have
set in place programs to address the environmental impacts of their business, but few have made the
necessary investments to ensure that their business models and operations are environmentally
sustainable," the report states.
Discussing the Hearts scenario, the report predicts
that "[e]conomic growth will continue but will need to be contained within a 'one planet' agenda."
It later fleshes out this explanation: "if we are to have any chance of bringing our global economy
back onto anything like sustainable lines, concepts like WWF's "One Planet Business' will be
Advancing this line of reasoning, SustainAbility tempers its stance
on economic growth, coming down more on the side of caution.
"The modern environmental
movement was powerfully shaped by its limits-to-growth roots," the report states. "Current
evidence of planetary 'overshoot,' with our needs outrunning the capacity of the planet to provide,
confirms the dangers we face in globalizing a flawed, unsustainable economic model. Even our
current resource use already exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by 25 percent."
"You could even argue that today’s economic model is an economic tumour on the planet," the
report continues. "Of our four scenarios, only Hearts is built around increasingly sustainable
economic and business models, but both the Clubs and Spades worlds would need to see energetic
experimentation on--and investment in--new technologies and business strategies."
report ends with seven recommendations, or "new rules" of the game for businesses in the age of
sustainability. For example, SustainAbility urges 21st Century leaders to "think around corners"
(or plan for the unexpected), find true South (recognizing that the Northern orientation of
so-called developed countries is waning with the rise of South-South trade), and to lobby--for
sustainability. Exemplifying this last rule is the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), whereby ten major companies are pushing
Congress to set a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions.
While the Brundtland
Report was instrumental in injecting environmental and social consciousness into the political
mainstream, it fell short of achieving substantive advances toward true sustainable development.
Hopefully, the SustainAbility report will inspire leaders to shoot for the Hearts scenario.
one of this two-part article examines how the Brundtland Report has promoted sustainable
development over the past two decades.