Looking Backward to Move Forward: Revisiting the Brundtland Report

The Brundtland Report shaped the field of sustainability — but key insights are now forgotten. Dr. Nigel Roome describes the lessons for business.
Nigel Roome September 24, 2017
The Brundtland report shaped the field of sustainability — but key insights are now forgotten. In this Thought Leadership post, Dr. Nigel Roome (Vlerick Business School explains the lessons for business. NBS Thought Leaders are leading academics and practitioners: world experts on sustainability issues. 

The concepts of sustainable development and sustainability emerged from the United Nation’s World Commission on Economic Development (Brundtland Commission) in 1987. But almost three decades on, people have lost sight of key ideas of the visionary thinkers who formulated the Commission’s report, Our Common Future. As a result, business sustainability is off track. Revisiting Brundtland’s “first principles” can help reorient companies and managers.

Defining the Problem

The Brundtland report told us that development decisions weren’t sufficiently considering environmental resources and limits. Their report anticipated an environmental and social crisis if the world’s developing economies followed the same path to development that had taken place in North America and Europe. To avert crisis, the report told us, developed countries had to reduce their resource demands and ecological impacts, while developing countries needed to find new development pathways.

Many acknowledge today that the Brundtland report’s predictions were accurate. We have a planet experiencing extreme climate events, constrained resources, debilitated habitats and stressed ecosystems, along with widespread poverty, growing inequality and pressures from migration.

Offering a Solution

Diving deeper into Brundtland’s definition of sustainable development can help us address the challenges we face. According to Brundtland: 
  1. Development is fundamentally “social development”: the health, wealth and education of a community or society. Economic development fosters social development both directly, by creating wealth, and indirectly, by contributing to health and education.
  2. Sustainable development is a particular type of social development that operates within the planet’s environmental limits or carrying capacity. It’s vital to know both an area’s carrying capacity and the impacts of human activities.
  3. Development has to be sustainable at different scales: local, national, regional and global. What is sustainable also depends on the context: a location’s ecological, economic, social and institutional qualities. (As the Brundtland report says, there is no single blueprint for sustainability.) 

While the Brundtland Report did not directly address business implications, its principles suggest appropriate action. 
  1. First, unsurprisingly: business matters. Economic and social development are intrinsically connected. The role of business is to find ways to create wealth — to be efficient, effective and competitive, and to meet needs — without damaging the environment beyond its carrying capacity or natural limits.
  2. Sustainable development is about the sustainability of places or systems: e.g. an energy or nutrition system. Focusing on firm sustainability alone isn’t sufficient. But, firms play a very important role in systems because their production and consumption activities affect those regions and systems. And, from a systems perspective, it’s vital to look at both the benefits business creates and the value it destroys.
  3. Many actors are involved in places and systems that are the focus of sustainability, and all need to be engaged for lasting solutions to unfold. Brundtland emphasizes that sustainability is too complex for any one organization to address alone.  Companies must therefore learn how to work with new and different individuals and groups: learning, innovating and changing together. Sometimes companies may lead, but more often they will follow. They contribute by:
    • Helping to set a more sustainable vision for the future
    • Sharing knowledge and insights about the present system, including its limits and potential for change
    • Working on pathways to the future: identifying, developing, assessing and implementing changes. Pathways will involve innovative technologies, products, services, business models and ways of working.
Sustainable development is thus the most open innovation systems imaginable. It is a process of social innovation, a multi-actor design process that provides new opportunities for those firms that are able to take up the challenge of competitiveness within the framework of sustainability. 

Losing Sight of Brundtland’s Principles

Today, businesses recognize the strategic challenge of sustainable development, but many seem unable to respond effectively. Many common approaches don’t address the core nature of sustainability as a complex, systems problem. For example, “Base of the Pyramid” and “shared value creation” both place business at the centre of the process, and neither is particularly concerned about environmental limits or carrying capacity.

By contrast, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan recognizes that the company’s aim to double its business while halving its environmental impacts means that it will have to foster change inside the company and through customers’ behaviour. The recognition that the company’s success in contributing to sustainable development depends on customer actions, and that environmental impacts must be reduced, seems more consistent with the Brundtland approach. Companies that measure impacts in relation to carrying capacity are also more likely on track.

An example: In the early 1990s, power company Ontario Hydro sought to contribute to a sustainable system of energy production and use in Ontario. It did not seek its own sustainability, alone.  In taking this approach, Ontario Hydro was actually advised by the authors of the Brundtland Report.

In a future post, I’ll provide more insights into how companies can apply core principles of sustainability: e.g. the managerial skills and capabilities needed, as well as the broader systems and structures. We can’t all be advised by the authors of the Brundtland report, as Ontario Hydro was. But we can all benefit from the report’s insights and guidance.

About the Author

Dr. Nigel Roome was Professor of Governance, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Development at Vlerick Business School (Belgium) until this month when he retired from full time work to focus on consulting and writing.  Over the past 35 years he has set up programmes on environmental management, sustainable development, responsibility and globalisation in business schools and universities in the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium. He is the author of many research papers and has been involved in securing more than 8 million euros in research funding. He has been recognized by the World Resources Institute and the Aspen Institute as a faculty pioneer and innovator in research and education for responsibility and sustainability.

Additional Resources

The source: United Nations. 2007. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our common future.

Two examples of companies seeking to address sustainable development: 
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