The term "sustainable development" is used widely throughout the world today, and it is used in many contexts. Yet, it has become almost a buzz word, used by many people without a clear articulation of its meaning. Therefore, it is important to begin with a definition. The United Nations (UN) is credited with developing the term, which was defined by a UN body called the World Commission on the Environment and Development in a 1987 report titled Our Common Future. The World Commission defined sustainable development as development which, "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Since Our Common Future was released, the goal of sustainable development has been embraced by environmentalists, governments, and businesses throughout the world.

Sustainable development needs to be viewed in the context of a global economy in which goods, people, information, and ideas are moving across borders at an unprecedented pace. It is a far-reaching overall concept that encompasses multiple social, economic, and environmental goals.

The world's population doubled between 1950 and 1990, and it is expected to have doubled again early in the 21st century, demonstrating the social needs of sustainable development. Yet, much of the world lives in poverty. Hundreds of millions lack access to clean drinking water and suffer from malnutrition. Sustainable development can help up the basic needs of the world's population.

Economic growth can help reduce poverty. In Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, economic growth has created new industrial centers. But, increased industrialization leads to environmental problems including air, water, and ground pollution.

Further, increased population and economic development have led to destruction of habitats and species. It is said that 80 percent of the world's forests have been destroyed, and deforestation continues in India, China, Latin America, and elsewhere. The amounts of ocean species such as whales, salmon, and cod have been seriously depleted by fishing. Irreplaceable coral reefs are being destroyed through human use as well as pollution. Further, by burning fossil fuels, we are depleting limited natural resources at the same time that we are causing imbalances in the atmosphere that lead to global warming and climate changes.

Overall, sustainable development requires a shift in thinking around the world. It is an underlying goal that can only be met through attention to social needs, economic development, and environmental protection. Sustainable development is often articulated as policy, but it must also be translated into action in our daily lives.

The various aspects of sustainable development can fill volumes, and therefore this article will provide only an introduction to some of the topic's many facets. First, it summarizes the history of the concept. Next, it discusses the pursuit of sustainable development in the United States. And finally, it examines three differing, yet interrelated, avenues through which the goal of sustainable development is being pursued: trade agreements, programs established by non-governmental organizations, and environmental law.


The United Nations (UN) has become increasingly involved in environmental issues since the late 1960s. In 1968, the UN passed a resolution in which it pledged to work to find solutions to environmental problems. In 1972, it held a Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, and, as a result of that conference, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Environmental Programme. In 1983, the General Assembly took another major step by establishing the World Commission on the Environment and Development (World Commission).


The World Commission conducted an in-depth, four-year study addressing interlocking ecological and economic threats and resulting concerns for the earth. As a result of its study, the Commission released a 1987 report titled Our Common Future, which is sometimes referred to as the Brundtland Report. In that report, the Commission defined sustainable development and its pursuit as important goals for the nations of the world. The Commission discussed the interrelationships among various crises facing citizens throughout the world. "[A]n environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one.… Ecology and economy are becoming ever more interwoven—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally—into a seamless net of causes and effects."


The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), was held in Rio de Janeiro (the Rio Conference) in 1992 and attended by representatives of over one hundred nations. As a result of the Rio Conference, UNCED issued "Agenda 21," which is a statement of principles for implementing sustainable development in industrialized and developing countries around the world. Agenda 21 recommends that each country create a national council for sustainable development. As of late 1997, nearly 100 such councils had been created around the world including the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), created by President Bill Clinton in the United States.


President Clinton appointed leaders of major corporations, environmental groups, labor organizations, civil rights groups, and others to serve on the PCSD. Also serving were the Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce, as well as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

After meetings held around the United States, the PCSD delivered a report to President Clinton in which it adopted the World Commission's definition of sustainable development and set out principles, 10 national goals, and 59 policy recommendations designed to promote sustainable development in the United States. The policy recommendations cover topics including population, agriculture, natural resource management, environmental regulation, strengthening communities, and public education. In its report, the PCSD emphasized the need for an integrated approach at the community level. Each person must be provided with opportunities to participate in decisions that will affect his or her future. The report emphasizes that knowledge is a key component in economic development, solving environmental problems, and working toward sustainable development.



The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect on January 1, 1994. It includes more provisions related to the environment than any international agreement or treaty entered into by the United States prior to that date. Environmentalists and labor leaders had a major influence on NAFTA. They worked together during debate on NAFTA, and their actions led to the negotiation of an Environmental Side Agreement and a Labor Side Agreement that were appended to NAFTA before it was considered by the U.S. Congress. NAFTA has been hailed as taking a major step forward for the environment, even though its provisions are limited. The Environmental Side Agreement mentions the pursuit of sustainable development three times, however, it is named only as a goal. NAFTA does not require pursuit or attainment of sustainable development. The body of NAFTA does, however, include numerous provisions related to environmental protection. For example, it covers phytosanitary measures (related to protection of human, animal, or plant life) and standards-related measures. The Side Agreement does not create new environmental laws, but the United States, Canada, and Mexico each promise to enforce their own environmental laws.


In December of 1994, President Clinton and leaders of 33 other Western Hemisphere countries met in Miami, Florida for the first Summit of the Americas since 1967. The purpose of the Summit was to plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FT A A) to be established by the year 2005. The Miami Summit produced a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action. The Plan of Action included 23 initiatives, divided among four sets. The first set concerns strengthening democracy in the Americas. The second set outlines steps toward creating the FTAA, and the third set includes measures designed to eliminate discrimination and poverty in the Western Hemisphere. The fourth set is titled, "Guaranteeing Sustainable Development and Conserving Our Natural Environment for Future Generations" and includes three initiatives covering sustainable energy use, biodiversity, and pollution prevention.

Efforts have continued since the 1994 Summit. Sustainable development was addressed in a separate summit: the Santa Cruz Summit of the Americas on Sustainable Development held in December 1996 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Representatives of all of the 34 Miami Summit countries participated and produced a Plan of Action that includes 65 action items. In addition, funding was promised by the World Bank, the Organization of American States (OAS), and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).


Business leaders are involved in the pursuit of sustainable development through various avenues. In some cases, they work with coalitions of environmentalists and other citizens. Other cases, they have incorporated discussion of sustainable development in the programs of privately-run organizations.


Coalitions of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are credited with encouraging professional business organizations to develop guidelines on environmental management practices. One example is the Responsible Care(r) (CARE(r)) Program, adopted by the Chemical Manufacturers' Association (CMA). The program is designed to improve handling and disposal of chemicals. All members of the CMA are required to participate in the CARE(r) program. Another example is found in the activities of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), a coalition of environmental groups, government agencies, investors, and economists that convened in the aftermath of a March 1989 accident in which the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. The CERES group a set of ten principles for environmental management that were first named the Valdez Principles and later renamed the CERES Principles. The group's initiatives have encouraged businesses to disclose environmental performance records to the public.

ISO 14000.

The efforts of the CMA, CERES, environmental groups, and others set the stage for action by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO is a private standards organization that has been in operation since 1947. In 1996, the ISO issued its new ISO 14000 Series International Environmental Management Standards. Those standards name attainment of sustainable development as a major goal, and they include standards for environmental management systems (EMSs) that can be adopted by companies around the world. Provisions within the ISO 14000 Series allow companies to obtain certification for environmental management standards, thus providing a way for companies to demonstrate environmental efforts to governments, environmentalists, consumers, and other companies. The standards and their widespread implementation are viewed evidence of a major shift in corporate attitudes and practices with respect to environmental protection.


Finally, individual countries continue to pursue sustainable development through national environmental law. In the United States such laws include, but are not limited to, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Clean-up and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund), and the regulations implementing those statutes. The U.S. Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, predates worldwide discussion of sustainable development, but its importance is underscored as we work toward sustainable development. In addition, new laws are needed to deal with concerns about biotechnology and biodiversity. For example, while some scientists promote biotechnology as a tool for developing a sustainable global environment, others fear that genetically modified organisms pose a threat to the environment.

A few U.S. laws are mentioned here by way of example, but discussion of the environmental laws of individual countries is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that such laws are part of the overall set of tools that will continue to be used by citizens and governments around the world in the pursuit of sustainable development.


Sustainable development involves the pursuit of myriad social, economic, and environmental goals. Thus, it must be pursued through many avenues, by millions of people, and through thousands of organizations.

Since the UN's World Commission defined sustainable development in Our Common Future in 1987, progress has been made. For example, coalitions of business people and citizens worked to develop the CERES Principles in 1989. Those principles, and the efforts of those who developed them, have prompted businesses to work to voluntarily develop environmental management systems (EMSs). In connection with that impetus, the ISO 14000 Series Environmental Management Standards have been developed. As a result, over 200,000 companies around the world have developed EMS systems that have been certified pursuant to the ISO 14000 Series standards.

Simultaneously, governments have agreed to name sustainable development as a goal in trade agreements, in international agreements, and in national-level statutes. Thus, sustainable development is named as a goal in NAFTA, and it is a primary topic of discussion among the nations of the Western Hemisphere as they work toward a Free Trade Area of the Americans. And, it is considered, and often incorporated, as new environmental laws are drafted and existing laws are revised.

Sustainable development requires the efforts of all of us working as individuals and as groups. As coalitions of various interest groups work on various levels within the community, nationally, and globally, a synergy is created. That synergy is essential if we are to create a world economy based on sustainable development.

In closing, it is important to acknowledge that sustainable development is not a target that can be set, pursued, and reached. Instead it represents a goal that is still being defined, and it will continue to be redefined during the decades to come. We cannot foresee the state of our world decades from now, but we can work toward a point at which the essential needs of the world's citizens are being met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

SEE ALSO : Economic Development ; Global Warming ; International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ; ISO 14000 ; Summit of the Americas

[ Paulette L. Stenzel ]


Dembach, John C. 'Pollution Control and Sustainable Industry." Natural Resources And Environment, Fall 1997.

Feinberg, Richard E. Summitry In The Americas: A Progress Report. Institute for International Economics, 1997.

Lash, Jonathon. "Toward a Sustainable Future," Natural Resources And Environment, Fall 1997.

Redick, Thomas P. "Biotechnology, Biosafety, and Sustainable Development." Natural Resources And Environment, Fall 1997.

Robinson, Nicholas A. "Attaining Systems for Sustainability through Environmental Law," Natural Resources And Environment, Fall 1997.

Stenzel, Paulette, L. "Can NAFTA's Environmental Provisions Promote Sustainable Development?" Albany Law Review, 1995.

World Commission On Environment And Development, Our Common Future. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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