Sustainable Development: Background

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Don’t you sometimes think that the term “sustainability” has become so green-washed that it’s losing its color? For example, for the eighth year in a row, BMW has been the “Dow Jones Sustainability Index Leader.” Really? Hearing this news, an Armenian peasant selling his wares at a local market became green with envy. For him, sustainability has been an existential principle for 30 years, but it is not often part of any big campaign. Nongovernmental organizations, trusts, and politicians compete for the position of intellectual, capitalistic, and spiritual world leader in sustainability. What is driving them?

The most popular and most widely accepted definition comes from the World Commission on Environment and Development (also called Brundtland-Commission, named after its chairwoman, the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland). In its 1987 report, the commission concretized it more precisely:

The Commission established two key concepts in its definition: The concept of needs – without needs there is no need for sustainability. The other is the idea of limitations:

  • Without limitations, present and future needs cannot be fulfilled.

As you might have noticed, the first definitions are about sustainability but the last one is about sustainable development. So what is the difference?

  • While sustainable development is a process of societal change, sustainability is the result of this process, a status.

How will this distinction make its way into your practice as an activist or multiplier? At first, you foster sustainable development by empowering, qualifying, and motivating people for civic engagement.

On a societal level, such an effort is one of many contributions to create a sustainable society. And when your encouragement leads your participants to become involved as active citizens – and remain involved – it means that your approach is also sustainable.

Since we see single activists, or facilitators as playing an active role in the learning and empowerment process, we prefer to use the term sustainable development.

At this point you are aware of various definitions of both sustainability and sustainable development, and you know the difference between the two terms. To aid in the understanding of sustainable development, to explain it to your team members or participants, models can be used to put sustainable development into a context and give it structure. However, you should always keep in mind that models simplify complex reality (in order to make it understandable) and therefore never include all its aspects.

The Four Circles of Sustainability

Most models of sustainable development are multi-dimensional, which means they involve different spheres of human life. The most popular model shows that a society’s sustainable development is carried by its social, economic, and ecological demands – it is a broad and interdisciplinary concept. The three pillars are linked and influence one another.

The social aspect involves the way we live together and how we organize our social coexistence. This includes politics as a framework for living together, common rules within the law, human rights, respect, and democratic values.

The economic aspect is about the way we work and create wealth. How do I organize my business– a small shop, a company, or even an NGO – to earn money? How do I meet my clients’ needs? What kinds of values do we want to create – merely profit? Or are there other values at stake, for example well-being?

The ecological aspect concerns the environment. This involves natural resources like water, fresh air, soil, and energy, but also animals, plants, and mountains. Since the environment is the basis for all life, some experts say this is the most important aspect of sustainable development.

Working in international and intercultural contexts and with participants from diverse backgrounds, we see culture as an extra specific category. The cultural aspect involves the way we behave and treat one another. This can refer to traditions in a certain country or region, religion, education, sexual orientation, or even hobbies.

We also employ the concept of fairness in our model of sustainable development. It includes an intergenerational and a global dimension. To put it simply: We should live in a way that also allows our children (inter-generational fairness) and other people (global fairness) to live good lives. If we use natural resources carefully (such as with renewable energies), act considerately of others (by buying goods that have been produced under fair conditions), and rethink some of our standards of living (such as the model of economical growth), we are confident that this will be possible. An action, project, or organization acts sustainably and fosters sustainable development when all aspects are taken into account. This is symbolized by the star in the middle of the model.

Four Overlapping Circles of Sustainability


Discussion of Sustainable Development

We do not promote the term “sustainable development” without a critical eye. Thus we suggest that critical reflection on this concept also be part of meetings or trainings.


Sustainable development is a very complex term. It tries to bring many different aspects together under one roof. As a result, it is difficult to provide education on sustainable development and to act sustainably in everyday life. However, since we live in a complex world with complex problems and challenges (poverty, energy supply, globalization, climate change, discrimination etc.), we need solutions that can speak to this complexity.

We offer a concept that includes both the negative and the positive aspects: Questions of whether or not it is possible to live sustainably in everyday life and how this could be done concretely can be very inspiring for your participants.


Sustainable development is based on preconditions that are not easy to fulfill and that do not exist everywhere. Working mechanisms of democracy and a democratic culture are helpful for putting sustainable development into practice. Or respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries.

The example of Armenia can give you an impression of the challenges Armenia and other societies face. In dramatic conflict situations, no one cares about social policies, economic fairness, or ecology. Furthermore, when democratic mechanisms do not function properly, people are excluded from decision-making. And some parts of the elite are more concerned with other developmental topics – especially their own personal ones.

At this point, we want to emphasize once again a balanced discussion of social, cultural, political, and economical realities.

Open to Abuse

Sustainability is a neutral term. Advertisements and newspaper articles will depict everything from sustainable toothpaste to sustainable car engines to politicians’ pleas for sustainable efforts to overcome the crises.

Therefore, we sometimes discuss greenwashing, what means labeling things as sustainable merely in order to sell them. What is the difference between sustainability and greenwashing? And how can your participants learn to distinguish greenwashing from real efforts to strengthen sustainability and sustainable development?


Some critics argue that sustainable development is a Eurocentric concept, popularized by a jet-set of liberal European politicians. Even though global equality and the needs of poorer countries are important issues within sustainable development, it is based on the Western idea of development. It is often connected to the belief in knowledge through scientific methods and critical thinking. Thus, sustainable development contributes to “a cultural asymmetry between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest.’” 9 Traditional knowledge, particularly non-Western knowledge, is seen either as “backward” and problematic or romanticized as “sacred wisdom” and therefore considered in terms of its future value. 10

But at the same time, sustainable development is compatible with many traditions, cultures and religious principles throughout the world. All religions address the question of the relationship between mankind and nature. The Koran emphasizes nature as a gift from God that mankind has to maintain, Buddhism sees humans embedded in nature, and Christian churches have started to criticize the Western idea of consumption and unlimited growth over the last few decades. Other examples of non- Western influence on sustainable development are the Living Democracy Movement in India and the Islamic Convention on Sustainable Development that emphasized the need to fight against poverty in 2002. 11

In the end, it is important to open the concept of sustainable development to different cultures in order to develop global ideas. Which ideas work for your society? Where do you see ideas of sustainability in your culture, religion, or society? How can you integrate aspects of your culture into the concept of sustainable development?

Sustainable Development and Civil Society

Sustainable development and civil society both have positive components but rather unclear definitions. This chapter will provide a brief overview as to what civil society means and how it is connected to sustainable development. How is civil society connected to sustainable development?

  • Armenian Activists protesting against building an open mine in Teghut,
  • Amnesty International campaigning for human rights throughout the world
  • numerous labor organizations that strive for better working conditions

Achieving sustainable development is a complex task. For this reason, in addition to efforts made by the state and international organizations like the UN (top-down), creating sustainable development will also require support from civil society (bottom-up).

Looking back on the history of sustainability, civil society has long been one of the major drivers in developing and implementing this concept: With its famous book “The Limits to Growth,” an NGO (“The Club of Rome”) stimulated discussion of sustainable development in the 1970s. Many other civil society actors made contributions, especially those dealing with environmental issues like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, local movements against polluting industries, national protests against nuclear energy.

Since the 1992 UN-Earth Summit in Rio, which finally established sustainable development at a global political level, civil society has been deeply involved in the development and implementation of sustainable development:

  • Networks like the “Clean Clothes Campaign” force global corporations such as Nike and Adidas to improve working conditions.
  • Advocate organizations raise public awareness of sustainability issues by putting it on the political agenda through research or protest.
  • Individual activists and organizations provide public spaces for discussion and information about sustainable development
  • Non-formal educational initiatives organize seminars for young people and teachers.


  • Arpine Galfayan, Sebastian Wehrsig, Nils-Eyk Zimmermann: Environment and Civil Involvement; How Can We Connect Sustainable Development Education and Active Citizenship Empowerment? ISBN 978-3-944012-01-8 Online

Sebastian Wehrsig

Facilitator and project manager Education for Sustainable Development and Transformation at Villa Fohrde (Germany).


Sustainability and youth work


CoE/EUC 2018: Download

Environment and Civil Involvement


How Can We Connect Education for Sustainable Development and Active Citizenship Empowerment?