Research in Geography and Environment

Robert Brinkmann on Sustainability

Co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability, Robert Brinkmann, discusses instances in which businesses, institutions and local governments have embraced sustainability.

Sustainability can be a tricky field to try to define. This is, in part, because the term has become commodified by organizations trying to brand their work as green or earth-friendly. However, sustainability is simply defined as an effort to try to reduce the impact of human activity on the planet. Since its inception, the term has focused on not only environmental impacts, but social and economic ones as well. While much of the work in sustainability derives from earlier ideas that centered largely on traditional environmentalism, the field is greatly informed by economics and social justice. There is some benign tension between those who focus on sustainability in the developed world and those that work in the developing world where sustainability issues are more existential.

Perhaps the best way to define sustainability is to look at what sustainability experts do. In recent years, the work in sustainability has focused largely in developing measureable outcomes from projects that focus on enhancing the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of our planet. The diversity of work being done across the world on sustainability is stunningly broad and impactful. We can all point to local examples where one individual or group is making a difference in their community. In my area of Long Island, New York, for example, a group known as the Citizens Campaign for the Environment is working hard to develop sound and sustainable water policy for our island. The organization is particularly focused on long-standing water pollution issues that threaten our single-source aquifer. Around the world, individuals or groups working locally help to make local communities more sustainable.

Local governments of various sizes have also gotten involved with sustainability. Large cities like New York or Paris have aggressively attacked their sustainability challenges, as have small communities in Florida and Australia. In order for these communities to reach sustainability goals, they have found ways to measure and benchmark key sustainability indicators. By doing so they are making progress on many issues ranging from environmental justice to climate change. Often following the examples of local communities, state and national governments have embraced sustainability. Many have developed sustainability plans and set targets for sustainability goals. The United Nations, with the Sustainable Development Goals, helped to create a pathway for nations to frame their sustainability efforts.

Businesses of all sizes have also gotten into sustainability. Some of them, like Wal-Mart, might seem like unexpected participants in sustainability. However, given their size, they are welcome participants in sustainability initiatives given their overall impact on the planet. There are a variety of ways that businesses benchmark their sustainability initiatives. Some of them are industry-specific such as the Rainforest Alliance Certificate for coffee and other tropical products, while others are much more general like the International Organization for Standardization’s environmental management standards. Economic development organizations have also added sustainability as a key element for future economic development.

Schools, universities, and churches have also embraced sustainability. Many have modified and added curriculum, changed missions, and altered the way they conduct business in order to ensure that they provide sound sustainability examples for future generations. Schools and churches were among the first to embrace the green building movement and they have also been at the forefront of the recent divestment movement to cut investment in fossil fuel companies.  Of course many other local, national, and international non-profit groups have also made significant contributions. Organizations such as Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and have advanced sustainability in particular ways.

Of course, many of the problems that we face in sustainability are wicked problems that vex many of us as we work toward solutions. It would be easy to throw up one’s hands in the face of so many difficult problems the world faces. Yet the field of sustainability is distinctly optimistic. It is filled with problem solvers who daily work to try to make the planet more sustainable. They are not unaware of the daunting challenges. Many sustainability experts focus their work on defining problems and many are engaged with measuring or assessing sustainability challenges. Yet by measuring the problem they provide a framework for developing solutions.

There are good examples across our world where people are making the planet more sustainable. They provide a guide for us to understand how we can advance a sustainability agenda in distinctly different locations.

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