A brief history of sustainability

These images feature three people that have made a great contribution to sustainability, but have now passed on, CK Prahalad, Anita Roddick and Rachel Carson. This page is a tribute to them.

Sustainability aspirations have emerged as a consequence of the Industrial Age. When James Watt’s steam engines were first used in 1776, industrialisation began. Mechanising factories and farms has delivered huge benefits for us, but has also generated huge environmental and social problems. People’s responses to the impacts of industrialisation give impetus to sustainability aspirations.







Its helpful to think of two eras of sustainability:

  • the first era of sustainability from the dawn of industrialisation to the early 1960s
  • the second era of sustainability from the 1960s to the present.

The first era of sustainability

From the earliest days of industrialisation there were voices of dissent. William Blake’s poem And did those feet in ancient time published in 1808, commented on “dark satanic mills” – England’s cotton mills. The development of the corporation saw entities evolve that would become larger economies than many countries. (The documentaryThe Corporation outlines the emergence of the corporation). Charlie Chaplin parodied the assembly line in his movie Modern Times. Pollution emerged as a major problem of industrialisation. In 1952, approximately 12,000 people died in London from the effects of air pollution. While this was a huge tragedy, perhaps the cumulative impact of World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two had people focussed more on survival and recovery.

While various elements of sustainability did not generate momentum, various initiatives, such as ethical investing and fair trade were initiated. And a few pioneering companies adopted a stakeholder focus. Johnson and Johnson’s Credo, crafted in 1943 is an example.

Air pollution in Santiago (image from www.wikipedia.org)

The second era of sustainability

While people had concerns about matters relating to sustainability during the first era, those concerns didn’t appear to convert into a sustained response. The 1960s was a time when ordinary people found their voice on a range of issues, including the environment, women’s rights, social justice and warfare. From the 1960s forward we have seen sustained action over sustainability issues with a growing momentum towards positive change. Here is a brief timeline featuring some events that highlight our progress. There are a lot of gaps here – feel free to suggest new entries.

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring draws attention to the environmental impacts of synthetic pesticides.
1962 The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the world to the brink of nuclear war raising alarm about environmental issues.
1969 Zager and Evans song In the Year 2525 typifies protest songs with a bleak outlook for humanity’s future.
1970 Milton Friedman argues that the main social responsibility of business is to increase profit – for its shareholders (stockholders).
1973 British economist Ernst Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful critiqued orthodox economics.
1974 Professor Muhammad Yunus starts the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh introducing micro-credit to the world.
1984 Edward Freeman advocates for stakeholders and challenges the concept of the shareholder as the dominant voice of corporations.
1987 The U.N.’s Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future advocated for sustainable development.
1987 Dame Anita Roddick opens the first Body Shop in the U.K. She is one of the pioneers of Corporate Social Responsibility.
1992 The Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit focussed on sustainability issues. 12 year old Severn Suzuki presented a powerful message.
1994 John Elkington coins the phrase “triple bottom line
1995 Shell’s disposal of the Brent Spar oil bouy sparked widespread protest that forced Shell to listen to its stakeholders and change its practices.
1997 AccountAbility is established in the U.K.
1997 The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is developed by Ceres, the Tellus Institute with the support of the U. N. Environmental Programme.
1997 The Kyoto Protocol is adopted aiming to limit greenhouse gas emissions
2002 The International Fairtrade Certification Mark is launched.
2005 AccountAbility launches the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard.
2006 Muhammed Yunus is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
2007 Better Place is founded and develops plans for the mass adoption of electric cars.
2007 Grameen’s first social business begins.
2008 The price of oil peaks at over $US140
2010 The BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill


You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes