Sustainability Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, COP, scopes, net zero, decarbonization, greenwashing, circularity — the past decade or so has brought forth a whole new vocabulary to talk about sustainability. It is a vocabulary that many people are still struggling to master while trying to comprehend what it's all about.
It's understandable. The problem is both vast and daunting — climate change! social inequality! marine pollution! — making it hard to grasp its full extent. On a positive note, the willingness of the general public to make more sustainable choices has increased strongly over the past five years, although it must be said that people's knowledge of the sustainability issues in the world continues to be startlingly patchy.
Even the current willingness has also been slow in developing. Sustainability was first defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, a commission appointed in 1983 by the United Nations to study how to achieve economic development for the countries of the world without sacrificing ecological health and social equity. It came up with the now-well-known definition of sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
That definition works perfectly, embracing as it does the very holistic nature of the concept and acknowledging the interplay of the ecological, social and economic dimensions. After all, like us, next to natural resources, future generations will also need social and economic ones in order to prosper.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015 and featuring the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is in essence a global partnership created to establish a path to a sustainable future for the world. They are, in other words, universal goals.
But can developing countries and developed countries share the same goals? Yes, says the UN. But different countries can take different actions and contribute in different ways to achieving global sustainability. For example, a population living in poverty is going to be more concerned about survival than plastics recycling, which means a country may need to improve general living conditions as a first sustainability step; richer countries, which may feel they have more to lose, must abandon their wasteful economies and polluting practices for more sustainable consumption and production patterns. It's a two-way effort.
In the current issue of Sustainable Plastics, I reported on two countries — Malaysia and Brazil — both of which are grappling with the implementation of the sustainability goals and the implications these have for the plastics industry in the two countries. Eager for international trade and export, the industries realize the need to comply with international sustainability standards and quality requirements. Both are finding ways that fit with their circumstances and cultures to achieve this.
Because opting out is no longer an option — for anyone — sustainability is a global partnership, and we are all in it together.
Karen Laird is editor of Sustainable Plastics, a sister publication to Plastics News. Follow her on Twitter @karelynnlaird.