Teething Troubles for Sustainable Development

updated November 2016

The concept of sustainable development was integral to Agenda 21, a programme adopted by world governments at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the “Earth Summit”.

Hopes that national development policies would be suitably modified proved premature. Outright vilification of Agenda 21 by vested interests in the US caused troubles for sustainable development in the years following the Earth Summit. Elsewhere, the vision of sustainable development enjoyed greater traction but sloppy interpretation of its definition has often permitted the trumpeting of social and environmental rectitude where none was deserved.

In the corporate sector, the classic “greenwash” ploy sanitised one small part of a company’s operations before promoting the entire business as a paragon of sustainable development. This widespread practice has crowded out public awareness of the small but growing number of inspiring examples of companies which strive towards genuine sustainability rather than incremental green gestures.

Presenting green credentials as a veneer – hard to criticise but lacking in substance – extends beyond corporations into all corners of society, including individual households. This has been the curse of sustainable development, rendering it impotent in government policymaking and in the observance of the 1992 Rio Principles.

This neglect is most explicitly apparent in the faltering struggle to combat climate change. The precautionary principle has been tossed aside in the failure of national pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions to the degree advised by scientists. The polluter pays principle has been minimised as the rich polluting countries fail to substantiate their promises to mobilise climate finance.

This debasement of the currency of sustainable development may account for its troubled progress. Assessed by reference to its “three pillars” – economic growth, human development and environmental protection, the decades either side of the Millennium present a mixed report card. Growth in the global economy continues to destroy the natural ecosystems on which it depends; improvement in human development indicators in many of the world’s poorest countries is compromised by widening social inequality on a global scale. Failure to achieve sustainable progress in social, economic and political contexts may explain the persistence of regional conflicts which have repercussions for all global citizens.

The introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals from 2016 should finally create a robust framework for changing course and measuring progress, almost 25 years after the first Rio conference. The Goals may also repair the damaged interpretation of sustainable development and its relevance to contemporary lives.


Rio Tinto’s approach to sustainable development – “we build sustainable development into every stage of our operations”. A classic corporate social responsibility presentation, constructed around the phrase “sustainable development”. But can we associate one of the world’s largest producers of coal with sustainable development?

more SDGs briefings
What is Sustainable Development?
From MDGs to SDGs
Sustainable Development and GDP
Green Economy
Safe and Just Space for Humanity
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