Sustainability is an industry of definitions, and the overwhelming number of acronyms makes it challenging to keep track. This article explores the most common terms within Sustainability, their commonalities and differences.
Sustainability goes back to times immemorial, as communities have always worried about the capacity of their environment and the traditional beliefs in terms of stewardship and concern for future generations. Many ancient cultures, such as the Māori of New Zealand, the Amerindians of coastal British Columbia, and peoples of Indonesia, Oceania, India, and Mali, had traditions restricting the use of natural resources.
The original semantic meaning of "sustainability" and "to sustain" refers to the ability to continue over a long time. The concept of Sustainability can be traced back to 1713, when the German tax accountant and mining administrator Hans Carl von Carlowitz wrote about the importance of never harvesting more than what the forest yields in new growth.
In modern times Sustainability has become a broad policy concept in the global public discourse, strongly influenced by the UN Commissions definition in the Our Common Future - report from 1987 (also known as the Brundtland Report, led by the former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland.):
"To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Today Sustainability can mean just about anything under the broad rubric of "doing well by doing good" and is often related to terms like "corporate responsibility," "triple bottom line," and "green."
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG)
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG) was defined by the UN in 2015 and is a commitment to extinct poverty, fight inequality and stop climate change within 2030. SDG is probably the most common reference to Sustainability and is often referred to as the Global Goals or the "Agenda 2030".
The SDGs consist of 17 goals, divided into 169 specific sub-goals. In addition, the UN has developed 232 global indicators to track the development of SDGs.
More and more companies worldwide are actively embracing the SDGs for the long-term benefits of reducing the risk issues concerning climate change, energy usage, diversity, and working conditions.
Since 2019, EcoOnline has integrated three of the Global Goals into its strategies:
Target 3.9: substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination.
Target 8.8: protect labor rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers.
Target 12.4: achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, following agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release into the air, water, and soil to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) is, by definition, a way of judging a company by things other than its financial performance. For example, its policies relating to the environment and employees' happiness.
ESG has become a massive focus for most businesses, as investors, employees, and other stakeholders increasingly expect companies to report how they impact the world around them.
Although ESG is mainly used as a term within capital markets, more and more business is incorporating sustainability reporting into their strategies, making ESG a familiar acronym to a growing number of industries and professionals.
The three ESG dimensions - Environmental, Social, and Governance
The different pillars within ESG are rarely weighted equally. Environmental conditions concern resource use, pollution, climate change, energy use, waste management, and other physical environmental challenges and opportunities. Traditionally, environmental factors, especially climate, are highly weighted, as there is a lot of attention and increased regulatory pressure in this area. With a substantial development in reporting on climate risk, the E-factor now trends to become more of a hygiene factor.
The social pillar focus on the business’ impact on its employees, customers, and the community. As the future of work has a more human-centered approach, the social dimensions of how a company tackles workplace health and safety issues, employee training, modern human slavery, local community impact, and even data and privacy are more important than ever. Read more about why a business should increase its focus on people and social issue management.
Governance issues address topics fundamental to good business ethics, such as bribery, corruption, procurement practices, risk management, and internal control. Governance matters are also highly weighted, as poor risk management and profit follow-up, mainly related to corruption, can have significant financial consequences for companies.
ESG and SDG – different sides of the same coin?
You'll often hear Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) and Sustainability in the same sentence — in some cases, you might even see them used interchangeably. Most of the time, this is no big deal. However, there are some valuable differences when these two initiatives are brought together in the same discussion.
The Sustainable Development Goals apply to all stakeholders, including countries and the general public. The SDGs are vaguer than ESG, which are specific and measurable. Just try for yourself – what is the first coming to your mind when hearing the term sustainability?
Sustainability is more thematic than corporate-centric. Companies solely focusing on the SDGs as practices to balance resource consumption and renewal without burdening future generations will find that quantifying the sustainability impact of a business and its decisions is not always easy.
On the opposite scale are the ESG dimensions, with little to no room for creativity. Each pillar consists of a set of data-driven criteria that companies can measure and report against.
However, as ESG-compliant investments are generally in line with the concept of Sustainability, the two terms are often used synonymously.