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History of sustainable development

Kirjoittanut: Kaisa Oksala - tiimistä Kipinä.

Esseen tyyppi: Akateeminen essee / 3 esseepistettä.
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 5 minuuttia.

The Internet is full of information about how concept sustainability has developed.

As a team entrepreneurs we wanted (Kaisa Oksala and Saana Keränen) to learn more about the topic and especially the creation and history of sustainability. Sustainability is now megatrend, and in that field, there is many business possibilities. In this essay, we are writing about events that gave birth to sustainability.


After World War 2 has just ended in 1945. Powerful nations came together and created The Bretton Woods Agreement for international trade. The functioning trade system resulted in the golden age of capitalism. 1945-1970. Tremendous industrial and commercial expansion led to rapid population increase and pollution.  These incidents gave a beginning to sustainable development. The industrial revolution impacted negatively to the environment and social balance. As a result, that led to ecology, social and economic crises. The biggest ecological crisis was global warming, air pollution, the ozone layer thinning, loss of biodiversity, and glacier melting.


 The publication of, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 is seen as an important turning point for the way people began to understand the relationships between the environment, the economy, and social well-being. In her book, Carson revealed that the chemical industry was spreading disinformation about the use of pesticides. This triggered a public reaction that stated the growing tensions between organizations, politics, and society. Silent Spring started the environmental movement in developed countries.

As environmental issues became more serious, anxiety was expressed in various published works. Authors and movements started raising awareness of the dangers of economic growth and drew attention to the world of environmentalism.


Jacobus A. Du Pisani Professor of History, described well in his essay, “sustainable development – historical roots of the concept.” (2006) how environmental movement was taking place in 1960-1970.


“Ecological disasters received much media publicity. Films, TV programmes and pop music popularized the idea of an imminent ecological crisis. Earth Day was celebrated for the first time in 1970. The Green Movement took off, the first environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, were established, environmental groups became more outspoken, ecologism became an ideology of some importance and green political parties started making an impact.”


Finally, The United Nations addressed the growing public concern in its conference in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. This was the first time that the UN held a meeting purely on environmental issues. In the meeting, it was recognized the close connection between environmental challenges and human development. They tried to push for the inclusion of environmental concerns into all aspects of policymaking. Some critics claimed that the conference did not go deep enough into the root causes of environmental problems, such as economic and social inequality.

Furthermore, the conference did not produce any legally binding agreements.


The Brundtland Commission published a report called “Our Common Future” in 1987.

The meaning behind the report was to address the challenges of sustainable development and develop strategies to meet those challenges. The report gave an analysis of the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development and recognized actions and policies that needed to be done for a better future. The term of  “sustainable development” was first introduced in the report.


Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. (Brundtland Report, WCED 1987: 43)


Critics argued that Our Common Future lacked a clear action plan. While the report recognized many of the issues of sustainable development, it did not propose concrete solutions. The report was too theoretical and did not give policymakers practical information.


UN then further elaborated the report in an action plan called Agenda 21. It was presented in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The comprehensive plan of action for sustainable development was approved at the summit. The action plan was non-binding. It executes plans at a local, national, and international level. Plan has been criticized for its economic focus and lack of concern for equity and justice.

Agenda 21 is a significant work in the history of environmental policymaking and it shaped international thinking about sustainable development and laid the groundwork for the agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement in 2015 was a big landmark for international agreements. The agreement aims to fight against climate change and promote long-term sustainable development. The agreement commits countries to reduce greenhouse gas and offer to developing countries financial and technical assistance to underdeveloped countries to help them address the impacts of climate change.




2000 United Nations set eight international development goals called The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The deadline for achieving the goals was 2015. It was historical that all 191 United Nations member states and 22 international organizations committed to achieving goals.

The main focus was improving health and education, reducing extreme poverty, promote environmental sustainability, improving maternal health, and battle against HIV/AIDS.

Some criticisms The Millennium Development Goals got, was that goals were too narrow-focused and they had chosen unrealistic targets. Narrow focus claimed to take some attention away from other important areas such as gender equality, human rights and environmental sustainability. Some critics felt like goals were overly ambitious or even unrealistic. The focus of goals was to improve conditions in developing countries and part of the plan to make that happen was that developed countries donate money to poorer countries. It was criticized that in that way, developed countries don´t need to change their own behaviors.

Overall MDGs played a significant role in the setting of global development, and it gave a framework to future attempts to improve the world situation.


At 2012, in Rio + 20 conference UN formed two teams to build an elaborate agenda to replace the MDGs for the upcoming 2015 conference in New York.

In the other team chaired by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, president of Liberia E Johnson Sirleaf and the president of Indonesia Joko Widodo, was responsible for preparing the UN´s post-2015 agenda.

Another team was formed by open working group managed by intergovernmental groups and organizations from all over the world. They were responsible for preparing new development goals and setting targets. Open working group worked with civil society organizations, consulted all member countries.

Both groups worked for three years in parallel, and they combined their knowledge. After three years of negotiations, UN showcased the “Blueprint to achieve better and sustainable future for all” in the conference in New York. The sustainable development goals consist of 17 goals and 169 targets. 193 countries promised to take part of these goals.



The sustainable development goals are broader than The Millennium Development Goals. New goals consider social, economic and environmental aspects. While The Millennium Development goals focused in developing countries SDGs are focused to both developing and developed countries.


Above I listed important events for SD and it´s development, some of those events I examined critically. Now I will highlight the general problems that cooperations in a field of sustainable development may face.

International sustainable development cooperation, has numerous problems. One of the key problems is the unfair power dynamics, where rich countries and international organizations dominate the direction of collaboration. As a result, poor countries may be missing out of meaningful agreements. Another issue is a lack of resources for example, financial, technical, and human resources. International collaboration on sustainable development usually includes a varied range of stakeholders. Stakeholders’ interests may influence to the results.



We are happy to see in the sustainable development goal list, goal number 9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure because that type of thinking didn´t come up when I did research on sustainable development and its origins. There was a lack of encouraging attitude towards innovative thinking.


Businesses are quickly accepting sustainable solutions in order to decrease costs, improve efficiency, and improve their impact on the environment. Businesses can benefit financially while maintaining a healthy planet by embracing sustainable practices. More sustainable actions can be a win-win situation for both business and the environment.



Lähteet: Jacobus A. Du Pisani Professor of History (2006) Sustainable development – historical roots of the concept, Environmental Sciences,


Ulkoministeriö: https://um.fi/agenda-2030-kestavan-kehityksen-tavoitteet (ei päivämäärää, luettu 27.4)


Swiss Learning Exchange, The story of sustainability – A course series, E1-E8, (2023)