“The Age of Sustainable Development” – Part 2

Sustainable Development

This is the second in a series of posts intended to define “Sustainable Development” operationally. By “operationally” I mean in a way that smaller manufacturers can actually use in their businesses. Last week’s post, Part 1 of this series, offered some zoomed out context. This post begins with the original definition of “Sustainable Development”, then zooms in on an expansion of that original definition presented as a university course. Part 3 of this series will zoom in further, expressing “Sustainable Development” as a group of United Nations sponsored goals.


In 1972, Donella Meadows and her small team of M.I.T. systems scientists published Limits to Growth. This book and the computer models upon which it was based emphasized that many of the Earth’s capabilities to provide resources and absorb wastes are limited. Consequently, the U.N. formed the Bruntland Commission to explore ways to reconcile human needs for continuing global economic development with environmental constraints. Continuing U.N. efforts toward Sustainable Development, including the present meetings in Paris, trace their origins to the Bruntland Commission.

Our Common Future,[1] the Commission’s final report (1987), defined Sustainable Development as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Bruntland Commission’s definition brings human needs to the fore, while also emphasizing long term, intergenerational aspects. OK, but not really useful to smaller manufacturers trying to figure out what Sustainable Development means in and for their business.

The Book and the MOOC

The Age of Sustainable DevelopmentThis year, Dr. Jeffery Sachs authored a MOOC [2] and an accompanying textbook; both titled “The Age of Sustainable Development”. A MOOC is a Massive Open On-line Course – a university level course of study, offered entirely on-line and open to anyone how wants to enroll. Enrollment in this MOOC is free. The textbook is also massive – it spans over 500 pages, with numerous charts, graphs and pictures. The book is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

The author, Jeffrey Sachs,[3] is an economist who emphasizes global macroeconomics and economic development. He is an academic heavyweight. Dr. Sachs became a tenured full professor at Harvard at age 32. He is now at Columbia University, where he is Professor of Sustainable Development and he directs Columbia’s Earth Institute. He has been a special advisor to the United Nations on human and economic development matters for many years.

The course and, especially, the textbook provide a comprehensive description of Sustainable Development and its almost incredibly broad scope. It is reasonable to expect that Dr. Sachs’ academic stature will cast the contents of “The Age of Sustainable Development” as a de facto zoomed-out definition of Sustainable Development.

So, “The Age of Sustainable Development” offers lots of information. For some smaller manufacturers, that information may be sufficient to integrate Sustainable Development into their business plans and practices. For most of us, a more zoomed-in approach would be useful.

To that end, the U.N., with Professor Sachs’ assistance, has constructed a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. [4] Each Goal has specific targets to be achieved by the year 2030 and corresponding metrics for tracking progress. These Goals are far from modest – Goal #1, for example, is “End poverty in all of its forms everywhere”.

Of course, no smaller manufacturer can eliminate world poverty. But there are many that may be position to contribute, in some way, to achieving one or more of the 169 specific targets that correspond to the 17 Goals. So, aligning business plans with one or more of those 169 targets, smaller manufacturers have a real, zoomed-in way to approach some aspects of Sustainable Development and make genuine contributions toward making the world a better place.

Next week, Part 3 of this post will examine each of these 17 Goals.

Chuck and SophiaThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.


[1] Our Common Future is available as a free .pdf at:  http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf

[2] For more on the MOOC, or to enroll for free, see: https://www.coursera.org/learn/sustainable-development

[3] For more on Professor Sachs, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Sachs

[4] For more on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, see: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/