Leadership & Strategic Sustainable Development in the 21st Century

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Sustainability & Sustainable Development

The world is facing a cultural and economic transformation from the Industrial Age to Sustainable development.

It is an exciting time, a crossroads of human history. There’s never been anything like it before on our planet: billions of people adopting sustainable development in their personal lives and societies around the globe; energy, food, and water systems transitioning toward sustainability; the extinction crisis coming to light; humanity adding a conscious planetary dimension to its history.

This is a time that, in many respects, the world has never been better prepared for than at this very moment . The green technology revolution is not far from being able to completely change our personal lives and the global economy around us. We now have both the knowledge and the opportunity at our disposal to create a world that can be much more efficient with the resources we have – far beyond what most of us would ever have imagined just a few years ago.

There’s never been an easier time for humanity to take responsibility collectively for making sure that each generation is better off than the last, by creating synergies between individual and collective action, making sure that we always consider both short-term profits and long-term sustainability. Our knowledge of science, nature, and the human psyche is only becoming more advanced with time; there’s never been a better opportunity to make decisions for the global good than now.

Strategic Sustainable Development

Most importantly, this is an amazing time because the world is beginning to realize this. The general public is starting to wake up, and we are all becoming co-creators of the world that will soon become reality.

What’s more, now more than ever before in our planet’s history, we know how to create change at a global level – not just for ourselves or our families, but for everyone and everything around us. We now live in a truly global society, where we can and must think of ourselves as one interdependent unit – one human family living on one planet.

In the 21st century, our challenge is to successfully transition from an Industrial Age framework to a sustainable development model , taking into account that more than 7 billion people are living on a planet that is itself in transition.

Yet, at this very moment, we also have the tools to succeed . We know how to create change, and how to become co-creators of the world we want to be part of. The growing awareness around sustainable development is here at last; this is what gives us confidence as we take the next step.

The purpose of this guide is to explain how leadership and strategic sustainable development can make a difference. It details what sustainable development is, why we need it, and where we are in its evolution. We will also touch on some of the upcoming challenges that lie ahead for us if we want to succeed . Finally, we’ll present some of the opportunities that are available to us, and the role leaders will have to play in order for this to happen.

Leadership & Strategic Sustainable Development in the 21st Century: What is Sustainability?

A Brookings Institution report explained what sustainability is and why it’s important

Sustainable development means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is based on three pillars:

  • A vibrant economy;
  • Ensuring that our use of natural resources does not exceed the carrying capacity of ecological systems and supporting the regeneration of these systems;
  • Social equity, including full employment opportunities for all people in ways that are consistent with sustainable development goals.

This understanding of sustainability is not new – it evolved over the course of centuries, as our understanding of human society and its relationship with nature continued to expand. To be fair, there have been many visions and definitions proposed throughout history about how humanity should organize itself in order for us all to flourish long-term, but it seems that we are beginning to understand now more than ever before what needs to be done in order to achieve this.

The Global Risks Report identified challenges that must be addressed in the future.

From an economic standpoint, a number of reports seem to agree on one thing – the only way for humanity as a whole to survive and prosper in the long term is if we learn how to harness our collective intelligence so that everyone can prosper. The United Nations Economic Forum (UNEF) claims that this could raise global GDP by up to 10% by 2030 – and it also highlights a bigger picture: social challenges will need to be addressed for us all to be successful .

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) agrees, stating that the future of our prosperity will depend on growing a new type of economy – one which is sustainable. Likewise, this means adopting a whole new approach:

“Our businesses have made their mark by providing products and services that make life easier and better. To realize success in the 21st century, we must now meet people’s ever-rising expectations by producing useful and valuable solutions to global issues,” the WBCSD argued.

Leadership & Strategic Sustainable Development in the 21st Century

The Need for Sustainable Development in Light of Emerging Trends

According to the Worldwatch Institute , environmental pressures are accelerating at an unprecedented rate – it estimates that “1.4 billion people still live without electricity and 2.7 billion rely on wood, charcoal, and dung for cooking.” By 2030, the global population is expected to be at 8.3 billion , which represents a 40% increase from 2005.

“Population growth, combined with increasing per capita consumption among the growing ranks of middle-class citizens in developing countries , will place great demands on the world’s resources,” the WRI stated.

This means that while we are better at discovering and harnessing rare-Earth minerals in order to produce more powerful electronics, there will be a greater strain on the environment – this has been documented over the past few years as “the fastest growing source of (acidic) pollution.” At the same time, we are also using more energy efficient devices that consume less energy – but this doesn’t mean the demand for resources is going down. As Bill Clinton once said: “We are seeing a transition from an industrial age where we extracted things to use them to an information age where we just extract and move on.”

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that our global consumption of natural resources has doubled in the past 50 years and is set to double again by 2030 . This means that we will need to use a lot more energy, water, and food – and much faster than it can regenerate.

Yet, as communications grow, so does awareness among people about what’s happening. This is encouraging individuals and communities alike to take action in their own lives. Acting on climate change was once a task for governments – but it has become clear that the private sector can play an important role.

Yet there are challenges ahead:

“One of the key messages from the report is that we need business to step up , at all levels, at a faster rate than they are doing so today,” explained Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.

“The next five years will be crucial in shaping our energy future. The time for action is now.”

With that in mind, companies must take note of certain trends – including:

Population Growth

The most immediate challenge is that the world population continues to grow. It’s expected that by 2050, the global population will have reached 9.6 billion people – and this is troubling news considering how much our consumption rates continue to grow . Yet more people also means more minds available to think of sustainable solutions and raise concerns about environmental issues.

“The way we live our lives today is causing an environmental crisis that threatens our future and the future of our children,” said WWF Global President Frances Beinecke. “Bold action and partnership must be taken by all of us who have a stake in this fight to ensure access to food, water and energy in a world where human beings can live in harmony with nature.”

A Greener Planet

Although the world population is growing, there are still ways to make it greener – we just have to look at our choices carefully and choose wisely. According to the Worldwatch Institute , “China now has more than 100 million rural households using solar energy, while India has about 20 million.” This not only makes power accessible to more people, it also reduces pollution and curbs our need for fossil fuels.

“Today’s report reinforces what we already know: the actions of individuals around the world can make an enormous difference in fighting climate change,” stated WRI President Andrew Steer. “Everything from choosing clean energy over dirty fuels to driving less to eating less meat makes a difference.”

Yet we also have to look at the bigger picture, where changes will affect our entire world. The Earth Policy Institute recently stated: “The long-term environmental outlook is bleak because the number of people on Earth continues to grow rapidly, outstripping gains in food production and other measures of material and energy use. The world’s population passed 7 billion a decade ago, and the United Nations predicts it will reach 10.1 billion by 2050.”

Bill Clinton stated: ” We are on a path to consume more than we can renew . And so we live in constant conflict between what we know is good for us and what we want .” Yet this isn’t news – we’ve been aware of the environmental crisis for years, yet our collective response has long been anemic.

“Although there are encouraging signs that attention is starting to focus on threats to the climate and food security , the scientific community has been advocating with growing urgency for many years,” stated World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “This report confirms that far more needs to be done. We are running out of time.”

A Bright Future?

Yet the future isn’t all doom and gloom: there is a lot that we can do, and this is why it’s important for us as consumers to make smart decisions when it comes to our household budget. By using more efficient vehicles, insulating our homes and appliances, switching to green energy sources and being more mindful of the materials we buy (including clothes), businesses will be rewarded with loyal customers.

Yet not all companies have jumped on board just yet – they still need a little prodding . Without pressure from consumers, many businesses are likely to stick to their old ways, which means going after the cheapest possible products and shipping them around the world. By asking companies to be more accountable for their business practices , we can make a big difference in our local environments .

“The report is a stark reminder that now is the time for action,” stated World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “We need to create jobs and economic growth, but we must also confront the environmental crisis. We need to invest in new energy sources and infrastructure, but we must also protect the forests, expand clean water access, and change land-use practices.”

If you want to see what changes are being made by companies today, look for the Green Tag . It’s a sign of good business, and it’s a sign that companies care about the future.

The Essence of Leadership for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: Five Steps for Corporate Leaders

Step One: Accept the idea that sustainability is a business opportunity, not a cost.

As businesses, the question we should ask ourselves isn’t what sustainability costs us and how can we reduce our expenses – it’s about what opportunities do we have to make money by growing a sustainable community in which all stakeholders win?

Step Two: Identify the Sustainable Development Goals that your business can help to achieve.

Ask yourself, “Which of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals are our customers asking us to help them achieve?” You know they’re looking for it; customers today are demanding sustainability from companies as never before, and if you aren’t providing it then a competitor will step in to fill the gap that you leave behind.

Step Three: Design a business model that delivers sustainable development goals in the marketplace.

Developing this step ensures your business is building on its strengths, and it means you can start thinking about how sustainability will work with your existing business structures. If you want to succeed at sustainability, you need to be designing your products and services around it from the very start, not as an afterthought .

Step Four: Implement your model with the right metrics and accountability.

Leadership means taking responsibility for results. In order to succeed in business today, you need to measure everything that matters so that you can make adjustments along the way. If you’re going to win at sustainability, it needs to be baked into your business model, and that means tracking the progress you make over time.

Step Five: Help build a sustainable community of businesses .

Perhaps most important of all is to avoid viewing sustainability as something you do on your own; it takes a community to achieve a successful outcome. As such, every company has an obligation to help their teammates succeed, to help their suppliers deliver on sustainability goals, and to help customers become more sustainable consumers.

sustainability

The relationship between leadership and sustainable development:

Executive and leadership teams should consider the following ways that sustainable development goals can help to achieve mission-based outcomes :

Goal 1: Achieve universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy for all.

Stimulating demand for energy will become an important part of building out the infrastructure necessary to power economies going forward . The world is moving more and more toward renewable sources of energy, and that means companies like yours can be leaders as you adopt new technologies.

Goal 2: Provide everyone with affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy services .

As we transition away from non-renewable forms of energy, we’ll need to work out how to keep the lights on while meeting sustainability goals. Businesses can help lead the way in finding new solutions that make customers’ lives easier while also reducing costs and emissions .

Goal 3: Ensure sustainable transport systems , promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, improve energy efficiency, and strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change s.

As companies work toward a clean-energy future, transportation is going to play a huge role in how we get there . Your company can be a leader by offering customers mobility solutions that use sustainable transportation options like public transit and electric vehicles.

Goal 4: Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth , including full and productive employment of young people and women.

The UN estimates that 10% of global GDP growth is lost due to poor natural resource management and environmental degradation . Businesses have an important role to play in taking a lead on sustainable development, to both take care of the environment and also help the economy.

Goal 5: Improve governance, the rule of law , access to justice for all, and integrati on into an enabling environment.

By building an inclusive environment that welcomes innovative thought and action, businesses can help advance sustainable communities . Businesses have an obligation to provide the best products and services for their customers while also fostering a culture of cooperation and respect.

Effective leadership means understanding that you’re never going to solve a problem alone; rather, leaders must find ways to bring communities together to help make progress on this important agenda.

Goal 6: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns .

As individuals, businesses, and governments around the world become more aware of sustainability issues , this means that everyone will need to find ways to reduce their environmental footprint . This is an excellent opportunity for your business to drive positive change for customers and the environment alike.

Goal 7: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts .

By working together, business leaders can help mitigate the effects of climate change while also helping customers reduce their environmental footprint and save money on energy costs . Both are excellent ways for your company to drive growth in the years ahead.

The following are questions a business leader might ask to determine whether his or her business is ready for the transition to a clean-energy economy:

What are the biggest challenges facing your business today? How can you leverage sustainable development goals as part of a larger vision for how you’re going to tackle those challenges and seize new opportunities in your industry?

How can your company help people save money, be more productive , and live healthier lives?

What are the most innovative solutions you’ve found to address today’s challenges in your business? Can you expand on some of those solutions to find ways to use sustainable development goals as a way to boost growth in your industry?

Are there clean-energy companies that could partner with yours on projects, either directly or with other industries?

What is the easiest and most affordable way to reduce your environmental footprint in the short term? In the long term?

What are some ways you can empower employees, customers, and suppliers by giving them more information about how they can be more sustainable ? Unlike some prior generations where families relied almost exclusively on TV and radio, today’s families get their news online. As a result, they’re reading more than ever , using mobile devices at the same time . This trend suggests that in order to be successful, businesses need to build digital ecosystems around sustainable development goals – and these ecosystems must adapt to new technologies as they emerge.

How can you provide incentives to employees and customers for reaching sustainability goals? Rewards are a great way to motivate people, especially those who enjoy turning challenges into opportunities.

What can you do to help grow the business of clean energy ? By using sustainable development goals as part of a broader blueprint for growth in your industry, you can inspire more businesses to find ways to provide environmentally friendly products and services.

How can you leverage your business’s ability to galvanize other leaders around sustainable development goals? The best way to change an industry is by forming coalitions with like-minded businesses that see the value in driving innovation through partnerships.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing your business today? How can you leverage sustainable development goals as part of a larger vision for how you’re going to tackle those challenges and seize new opportunities in your industry?

How can your company help people save money, be more productive , and live healthier lives?

What are the most innovative solutions you’ve found to address today’s challenges in your business? Can you expand on some of those solutions to find ways to use sustainable development goals as a way to boost growth in your industry?

Are there clean-energy companies that could partner with yours on projects, either directly or with other industries?

What is the easiest and most affordable way to reduce your environmental footprint in the short term? In the long term?

What are some ways you can empower employees, customers, and suppliers by giving them more information about how they can be more sustainable ? Unlike some prior generations where families relied almost exclusively on TV and radio, today’s families get their news online. As a result, they’re reading more than ever , using mobile devices at the same time . This trend suggests that in order to be successful, businesses need to build digital ecosystems around sustainable development goals – and these ecosystems must adapt to new technologies as they emerge.

How can you provide incentives to employees and customers for reaching sustainability goals? Rewards are a great way to motivate people, especially those who enjoy turning challenges into opportunities.

What can you do to help grow the business of clean energy ? By using sustainable development goals as part of a broader blueprint for growth in your industry, you can inspire more businesses to find ways to provide environmentally friendly products and services.

How can you leverage your business’s ability to galvanize other leaders around sustainable development goals? The best way to change an industry is by forming coalitions with like-minded businesses that see the value in driving innovation through partnerships.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing your business today? How can you leverage sustainable development goals as part of a larger vision for how you’re going to tackle those challenges and seize new opportunities in your industry?

How can your company help people save money, be more productive , and live healthier lives?

What are the most innovative solutions you’ve found to address today’s challenges in your business? Can you expand on some of those solutions to find ways to use sustainable development goals as a way to boost growth in your industry?

Are there clean-energy companies that could partner with yours on projects, either directly or with other industries?

sustainable development

How we can develop leaders to become more sustainable in their thinking and actions:

Framing the narrative around sustainable development goals in this way has an important impact on people. It helps to shift a mindset that sees sustainability as a burden and instead views it as an opportunity for new business models, greater innovation, reduced risk, and increased productivity – all while addressing today’s biggest challenges.

How do we get more leaders thinking about sustainability in this way? Well, we can start by making sustainable development goals a shared language across companies and industries. That’s what the Sustainable Development Goals Global Partnership is all about – helping more businesses find ways to innovate through partnerships around sustainable development goals.

It’s also important to establish best practices for leaders to make sure that their businesses are living up to their potential. For instance, the Sustainable Development Goals Global Partnership created a set of tools and resources to help businesses become sustainable leaders . These include:

The Sustainable Leadership Compendium , which has more than 250 pages of insights from global experts on how to use sustainable development goals as part of better business models and what it will take to meet them.

The Sustainable Development Goals Challenge , which is currently being used in more than 20 countries to facilitate conversations about sustainable development goals at the enterprise and community level.

A set of four case studies (so far) on how businesses around the world are making a difference through partnerships with other companies, governments, and NGOs.

When leaders build ecosystems that leverage sustainable development goals, they inspire others to become more sustainable and take action. The best way to do this is by having conversations that allow the challenges and opportunities of Sustainable Development Goals to be seen as part of a growth blueprint for business.

That’s why I hope these ideas are useful . It’s my sincere belief that anything we can do to help more leaders understand how to be sustainable in their thinking and actions will make a big difference.