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Forty years of sustainable progress: A comprehensive exploration (I/II)

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By Yury Erofeev

· 7 min read

This comprehensive exploration delves into the evolution of sustainable development over the past four decades, highlighting its transformation from a utopian concept to a concrete, internationally supported strategy. Focusing on modernizing production stages and fostering consumer responsibility, the article illustrates how addressing environmental, social, and economic challenges through circular economy practices and responsible resource management can pave the way for a sustainable future, ensuring environmental preservation and social well-being across generations.

How modernization of all stages of production and consumer responsibility can lead to sustainable development

The term “sustainable development” is understood as a responsible approach to the development of society, which should ensure sustainability for current and future generations. Over the past 40 years, this concept has undergone major changes — from a vague and almost utopian idea, it has been transformed into a concrete concept supported by the international community. I will tell you how the view on sustainable development has changed and why the organization of production stages plays a significant role in achieving it.

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Development price

The phrase “sustainable development” first appeared in an official document in 1980 at a conference of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. By that time, it became obvious to scientists that human activity had put the biosphere on the verge of an ecological crisis: throughout the planet, ecosystems suffered from pollution and were often destroyed, and many biological species were in danger of extinction due to direct extermination or loss of habitats.


The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is a species that is in danger of extinction due to the deforestation of tropical forests in Sumatra and their replacement with oil palm plantations.

This meant that if people want to preserve natural benefits for future generations, then they must be consumed taking into account environmental restrictions. In other words, at that time the term “sustainable development” meant economic growth without harming the environment.

In the search for the right path of development in subsequent years, scientists and politicians realized that states were too different from each other in their economies, cultures, and problems. It is hardly possible to achieve sustainable development by placing them within the same framework of environmental constraints: for many countries, the priority remains the fight against hunger, poverty, and social inequality. Without addressing these issues, it will be difficult for them to minimize environmental damage. Therefore, the focus of the discussion shifted to social justice and balance, analysis of global problems, improvement of legislation, and producer responsibility.

In 2015, the UN published 17 sustainable development goals. At least three of them are unattainable without the participation of business, namely: decent work and economic growth; industrialization, innovation and infrastructure development, and responsible consumption and production. Society has realized that business bears a significant responsibility for social well-being — over the past decades, large corporations have been assisting developing countries where they locate production. In addition to providing jobs, they are funding local education and healthcare, building infrastructure, and providing humanitarian assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merciful cycle

The life cycle of any product consists of at least four stages, each of which involves an impact on the environment: resource extraction, product production, consumption, and disposal. For many decades, almost everywhere, this process was not cyclical, but linear: goods no longer suitable for consumption were sent to solid waste landfills or incinerated. However, in their quest for sustainable development, companies are faced with the need to minimize environmental damage. To do this, they connect all stages and switch to a circular economy.

This path is much more complex than the classical linear economy, but in addition to the obvious advantage of preserving the environment — minimizing the use of exhaustible resources — it also implies benefits for society as a whole. The implementation of a circular economy creates jobs because businesses need specialists who can solve the technological, environmental, and legal problems that arise. Moreover, in the long term, such production will not become more expensive than linear production: according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, thanks to the circular economy, the European Union will be able to save up to $630 billion annually in material costs — mainly in the automotive sector.

Stage one: resources

There are three main ways to reduce environmental damage during the extraction of raw materials. You can improve the extraction method itself, replace the raw materials with more environmentally friendly ones, or, at least partially, switch to recycled materials.

Often, resource extraction methods are associated with negative impacts on the environment: depletion of non-renewable resources, land degradation, destruction of forest cover, and environmental pollution. For example, palm oil is used today to produce many food products and household chemicals. The high demand for this plant product has provided jobs for many residents of Malaysia and Indonesia, but the price for this has been the deforestation of tropical forests — now more carbon dioxide is emitted from the territories of these countries than is absorbed.

Rainforests are also a key region for growing coffee and cocoa. The production of such products puts a significant strain on the environment: forests are cut down for plantations, large amounts of mineral fertilizers are used during cultivation, and large areas of monocultures attract pollinators and distract them from neighboring plant communities, which reduces their biodiversity.

Processing the already obtained fruits is also quite resource-intensive — just removing the pulp from a kilogram of coffee fruits requires up to 40 liters of fresh water. Currently, large manufacturers are trying to make this area more transparent and sustainable. Lavazza has launched a line of organic coffee, which is grown on farms certified for a range of environmental indicators. The brand provides free training to farmers on sustainable agriculture, and business management and supports the conservation of the Amazon rainforest. Mars plans to invest $10 billion in sustainable cocoa farming to support farmers and preserve tropical forests.

In many developing countries, workers involved in extracting minerals for production do not receive decent wages and sacrifice their health. For example, in poor African countries, gem mining often takes place in war zones. The resulting raw materials are then sold to jewelry manufacturers, and the proceeds are spent not on fair wages, but on military operations and terrorist activities. The stones obtained in this way are called “bloody”.

Typically, companies do not procure raw materials for their products themselves but turn to suppliers. In this case, it is important to ensure that procurement complies with sustainability requirements. Nowadays, this is easier to do thanks to environmental certifications and labels. Thus, responsible printers only use paper approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). It is produced under responsible logging practices and distributed through transparent supply chains.

The non-profit organization CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) annually provides environmental ratings of companies, assessing them on climate impact, forest conservation and rational use of water resources. Philip Morris International is one of ten companies to be included in the “A” lists for all three environmental indicators. This was largely achieved thanks to concern for the socio-economic well-being of tobacco farmers in the countries of presence.

Changing the material needed to make a product also helps us move closer to sustainability. For example, growing organic cotton, although it involves the use of alternative energy, avoids pesticides, and is hand-picked, still has a large environmental burden. Greener alternatives for the textile industry include hemp and eucalyptus, which are used to produce hemp and Tencel fabrics. These crops are relatively low-maintenance and produce more fiber that requires less chemical processing. At the same time, a hectare of hemp fields absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than a deciduous forest.

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Fibers obtained from hemp.

At least some of the raw materials can very often be replaced with secondary ones, and their sources may turn out to be the most unexpected — for example, plastic waste from beaches and shallows. The Parley for the Oceans project collects it and processes it into polyester fiber. Sneakers made from this material can already be purchased from Adidas, Nike, and Stella McCartney. Nylon has also become an important polymer from marine debris. Through the efforts of the Bureo project, sunglasses, backpacks, swimsuits, and even skateboards are made from recycled fishing nets.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Yury Erofeev is a Business Analyst at SQUAKE, utilizing a solid foundation in Physics, Mathematics, and Sustainable Development to drive meaningful industry changes through data-driven decision-making.

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