March 21st, 2010, by John Shideler

“Sustainability” and “social responsibility” have entered the mainstream vocabulary over the last two decades. Sustainability is a “second generation” term, having morphed into a more generalized concept from its narrower meaning in the phrase “sustainable development” that gained the world’s attention during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The most widely cited definition of sustainable development came in Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) published in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Social responsibility has had a parallel development. Early on, the term often appeared with the prefix “corporate,” but recognition that social responsibility is an obligation of institutions and governments as well as corporations has broadened the term’s application. A draft international standard, ISO 26000, embraces the broader context with its title “Guidance on social responsibility.” The ISO document defines social responsibility as “responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment through transparent and ethical behavior.”

If only it were as easy to achieve sustainable development and social responsibility as it is to define the terms!

Delegates to the follow-up conference to UNCED, which met in Johannesburg in 2002, generally voiced their disappointment that more progress had not been made to achieve the goals set out in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called Agenda 21. In the nearly eight years since 2002, some progress has been achieved on coordinating action to combat climate change, but as the results of the December conference in Copenhagen shows, the world is still far from agreeing on a set of binding commitments to make the changes scientists say are needed to keep the Earth’s average temperature from rising more than 2° Celsius by the end of the present century.

In the meantime, some countries (Denmark, for example) have demonstrated that it is possible both to grow their economies and reduce their carbon intensity while adding “green” jobs. Other countries have taken on the binding commitments defined in the Kyoto Protocol, though not all will actually achieve their targeted reductions.

Many of the largest and most visible corporations commit publicly to operating in socially responsible and sustainable ways. Some acknowledge that the commitments help them preserve what they call their “social license to operate.” This means taking voluntary, proactive action to meet or exceed legally required actions in areas such as worker health and safety, environmental protection, and social impact mitigation. Corporations may promote sustainability in decision making not only to develop new or preserve existing lines of business, but also to manage risks and derive public relations benefits.

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 refocused the attention of many citizens on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, income security, and the risks associated with rising government indebtedness. In the near term the political will to address climate change in the United States appears to have diminished as short-term costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy take precedence over long-term questions of intergenerational equity.

The old adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats” no longer rings so true on Main Street. Ordinary citizens are distraught over persistently high unemployment in their communities and the financial challenges facing state and local governments. Many question the fairness of the apparent rebound of the Wall Street institutions that some say were principally responsible for the near collapse of the world economic system.

As painful as the Great Recession continues to be for individuals and families directly impacted by it, early shoots of recovery are visible in the United States. Will economic recovery shift attention to the need to act sustainably and in a socially responsible fashion? There are reasons for optimism. Sustainable development principles now are given consideration in the planning processes of many governments and are recognized by private sector actors. Social responsibility is defined and its concerns inform the planning and operations of many leading corporations. Results are measurable, and accountability is possible, if not always through legal mechanisms, then in the court of public opinion.

In the end, nearly everyone shares the common goal of leaving our children and grandchildren a world at least as good as the one we inherited. Demonstrating social responsibility and achieving sustainable development are important barometers for measuring the success of our generation’s stewardship of the Earth we inhabit.

© Futurepast: Inc., 2010.

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