Sustainability | Impact

    Starting Block

    We’re glad you’re here! It’s the right place to start if you are navigating through the exciting and intricate world of sustainability and impact.

    This section will give you some essentials and perhaps challenge your understanding of what sustainability involves.


    We recognise that each of us creates both negative and positive impact through our actions - by our consumption, organisational activities and investment patterns. It is a ratio that requires continuous work to improve. This is the #ImpactImperative.

    Moving towards sustainability is a journey that starts with awareness and then takes progressive steps towards an overall positive impact #sustainabiltyisajourney.

    What is Sustainability?

    Sustainability as a term has evolved from defining biological systems to a fine balancing act between people and planet. Here are a few core definitions to focus on:

    Sustainable development from UN (The Brundtland Commission Report, 1987)
    The most recognised definition of sustainable development originates from “Our Common Future”, written in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment & Development, also known as the Brundtland Report. This report defines sustainable development as:

    "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
    (Brundtland 1987, p. 41)

    “Caring for the Earth” elaboration of sustainability terms IUCN, UNEP, WWF (1991)
    In 1991 a report was published as a response to the Brundtland Report. “Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF):

    “… sustainable development, sustainable growth, and sustainable use have been used interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. They are not: “Sustainable growth” is a contradiction in terms: nothing physical can grow indefinitely. “Sustainable use” is applicable only to renewable resources: it means using them at rates within their capacity for renewal. "Sustainable development” is used in this strategy to mean: improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. A "sustainable economy" is the product of sustainable development. It maintains its natural resource base. It can continue to develop by adapting, and through improvements in knowledge, organisation, technical efficiency, and wisdom.”
    (IUCN et al 1991, Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living, p. 10)

    Sustainability Framework according to The Natural Step
    The Natural Step defines four conditions to be met in order to reach sustainability. These four system conditions, also known as the principles of sustainability, were developed by a group of international scientists:

    "a sustainable society means that nature is not subject to systematic increases in:

    1. concentrations of substances from the Earth’s crust;
    2. concentrations of substances produced by society;
    3. degradation by physical means; and, in that society,
    4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.”
    (The Natural Step)

    The many definitions of sustainability and sustainable development
    If you ever searched for “what is sustainability?” or "the definition of sustainability” on the search engines, you will find no less than 250.000 results. In academic literature alone there are over 300 definitions of sustainability and sustainable development.

    One of the Impact Garden volunteers has collated the many findings into one article.


    Most of us reference the United Nation’s 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future which defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations. The Earth Charter broadened the definition to include the idea of a global society “founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”

    Sustainability Timelines

    Back in 1713, the term “sustainability” (Nachhaltigkeit in German) was first used by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, in response to Saxony’s disappearing forests. In this interactive timeline, Corporate Citizenship goes back to 18th century and brings up the drivers, milestones and corporate controversies of sustainability together.

    In this brief World Sustainable Timeline (2012) Asian Development Bank presents major sustainability events and milestones in the world starting from 1948.

    The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) highlights Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) as a reference point for the Sustainable Development Timeline (2012). This timeline concentrates primarily on ecological milestones and covers the major events prior to 2012.

    Interested in key events around climate change? This article "A Brief History of Climate Change" (2013) by Rachel Black (BBC News environment correspondent) introduces us the central activities, political involvement, major scientific and technical findings with regard to climate change.

    The United Nations has an interactive tool on their knowledge platform. This tool brings together milestones on sustainable development themes (it treats each topic separately). Visitors can select from a range of topics such as climate change, education, green economy, sustainable consumption and many others to see relevant milestones in each respective area.

    UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

    Sustainable Development Goals emerged as an outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. In the conference, also referred to as Rio+20, the countries who'd come on-board agreed on releasing a new set of goals, which could replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), that were launched in 2000 with an aim to address extreme poverty and hunger. The official declaration of the Rio+20 "The Future We Want" (para. 246) outlined the Sustainable Development Goals as: “The goals should address and incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their interlinkages.“

    Announced by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 193 Member countries formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015. The Agenda defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets with a main focus on “people, planet and prosperity”.

    The Sustainable Development Goals are a bold commitment addressing the greatest challenges facing the world. They aim to be transformative by propelling the world towards a more sustainable path. And they aim to ensure that no one is left behind.

    Humanity’s development goals (and commitment) to live a better life have been successful in many ways. One of our favourite pieces giving testimony to the betterment of the world we live in is covered by the wonderful Dr Hans Rosling (RIP) in his book "Factfulness". If you prefer video, you can see some of his best talks on TED Talks.

    And we now have the SDGs which will ensure we stay on track and keep moving in the right direction with a sense of urgency and more coordination!

    What is Impact?

    Impact is a change in an outcome caused by an organisation. An impact can be positive or negative, intended or unintended (definition provided by the Impact Management Project).

    Here is an extract of "what is IMPACT" (YouTube) from a MOOC that TIIME ran with the Social Entrepreneurship Akademie featuring Yunus Mohammed and other game changers in the space.

    You will find the notion of "impact" explored further in many of the other sections of the Impact Garden.


    What inspires the sustainability journey?

    • Amazing actions of people and organisations?
    • A sense of place, or a desire to achieve profit through purpose?
    • Is it about right and wrong, a desire to make a difference to others, or the ability to empathise?
    • Maybe it is a sense of urgency or learning the facts and developing understanding.

    The future and health of our planet unites us all, but everyone has a different reason why sustainability matters to them and what captures their attention and motivates them. Recognising what resonates most with one person may be different for someone else. This section presents different paths to inspire your interest, expand your knowledge and lead you to action. We have shared some resources we have found inspiring! There are some videos that enrich the story, sites to explore and subscribe to and educational materials and articles to read and absorb.

    What is Sustainability? Why is it Even More Important Now?

    • What’s Possible, narrated by Morgan Freeman
      2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York made a sensational opening with this inspirational video. The video is a call to action: “We have everything we need to wake up to a different kind of world… we have every reason to act in the world. We can’t wait until tomorrow. This is our only home. You can choose today to make a world of difference.”

    • My Wish: Manufactured landscapes and green education
      In this video Edward Burtynsky, 2005 TED Prize winner, documents human impact on the planet. His pictures tell a thousand words. He hopes his images will inspire millions to raise their voice about sustainability.

    • What’s Your 2040?
      If we embrace the best of what we're able to do today, then we can be optimistic about the future. Watch this trailer of a longer documentary to give you a taster.

    The Importance of Place & Wonder of the Natural Environment

    • Our Planet
      Sir David Attenborough says we are "running out of time but there is still hope". Accelerating impact of climate change. There is now unequivocal evidence of the impact of human activity on the planet, particularly fossil fuels. The imperative is to act now to reduce carbon emissions through alternatives to fossil fuels using technology in areas such as renewable energy (solar or wind generation), alternative fuels for transport, capturing carbon from the atmosphere and individual consumer choice. "The costs of action are dwarfed by the costs of inaction" to limit warming. It is up to us, you too can make a difference. Be amazed by Our Planet. The Netflix series is awe-inspiring for all ages.>

    • Ocean Conservation: Hilo, Hawaii
      Surfer and scientist, Cliff Kapono, shares the beauty of Hawaii's beaches and stresses the importance of taking care of the ocean as our existence is intertwined with the health of the ocean. As a scientist, Cliff researches coral reefs.

    How Do I Learn More?

    There are other easily accessible relevant information sources including websites and social media channels. Below are just a few that may inspire and inform you. Each of them offer various ways that you can receive updates through social media or by subscribing to the site.

    • Sustainability - an open access journal
      Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050; CODEN: SUSTDE) is an international, cross-disciplinary, academic, peer-reviewed and open access journal of the environmental, cultural, economic, and social sustainability of the human race. Sustainability provides a comprehensive forum facilitating studies related to sustainability and sustainable development. It is published bi-monthly online by MDPI. It is free to read.

    • Nature Sustainability
      Nature Sustainability offers free access to journal publications and research. Nature Research serves the research community by publishing the most significant discoveries— i.e. findings that advance the knowledge base. The journals publish, not only primary research, but also reviews, critical commentary, news and analysis.

    • Impact Hub Network and Blog
      This is a network focused on building entrepreneurial communities for impact at scale - home to the innovators, the dreamers and the entrepreneurs who are creating tangible solutions to the world’s most pressing issues.

    • Year of Green Action
      The Year of Green Action (YoGA) is a year-long drive connecting people with nature, and showing how we can all take positive action to protect and enhance our environment – in our own gardens, schools or workplaces, and as consumers. This website provides an overview of the activities.

    • International Journal of Environment and Sustainable Development
      Addresses matters related to environmental and sustainable development, paying particular attention to key issues in developing countries, whilst also reporting on the latest environmental trends in industrialised nations. Its range of themes encompasses ecological studies, field research, empirical work and descriptive analyses on topics such as environmental systems, environmental policies and politics, environmental legislation, environmental impact assessments, water- and energy-related issues, and sustainability.

    • TakePart
      A digital news and lifestyle magazine and social action platform for the conscious consumer. Founded in 2008, the website operated as part of Participant Media. Unfortunately the online magazine closed in 2016, but the archived content is still available; there's some valuable content on here.

    • World Wildlife Fund
      The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is a leading conservation organisation, working in 100 countries and supported by more than one million members in the United States and close to five million globally. WWF’s work has evolved from saving species and landscapes to addressing the larger global threats and forces that impact them. They have an ambitious new strategy which puts people at the centre and organises their work around six key areas: forests, marine, freshwater, wildlife, food and climate.

    • BBC Science and Environment
      This site offers science news and information on numerous newsworthy topics relating to the environment.

    • Small Giants
      Small Giants was founded in 2007 by Danny Almagor and Berry Liberman to create, support, nurture and empower businesses and entrepreneurs that are shifting us to a more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable world. The mission is to lead the community towards Empathy and a Next Economy, using business as the major tool for positive social and environmental impact, and providing people with a meaningful pathway to live a life of passion and purpose.

  • Please see the Key Players section for additional sources of information - particularly the category for newsletters and blogs!

  • Websites containing videos of interest

    Books to Read

    • The Limits to Growth
      Commissioned by Club of Rome and published in 1972, the book “The Limits to Growth” is, as they call it: “a study about the future of our planet”. Based on the intention of revealing the potential impacts of the world's growing consumption, the book questions the limits of economic growth in a world of finite resources and attempts to find a system that is sustainable. On the one hand, the book provoked controversy whilst, on the other hand, it also inspired the environmental and social change leaders and thinkers.

    • Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles And Patterns Will Shape Our New Economy
      John Fullerton’s struggle to find a credible alternative framework for economics and finance inspired this holistic view of how the economy can be redesigned to account for value based on multiple dimensions. An excellent read (and don't hesitate to take a look at his video links if you prefer to absorb knowledge that way - he is as eloquent in person as he is in his writing).

    • Silent Spring
      This is one of the most frequently cited and respected environmental science books by Rachel Carson. It was published in 1962 and serves as a warning of the dangers of using chemicals in nature and how they negatively impact insects and plants. By addressing pesticides as being the cause of the environmental problems, Carson is widely regarded as an early proponent of the environmental movement. This book is definitely a must-read for those on a journey of sustainability.

    • Small is Beautiful
      Published in 1972, this is another timeless book written by Schumacher. The book inspired the environmental and social movements. It has been a strong influence behind the “Buy Local” and “Fair Trade” movements. In the book, Schumacher criticises the modern growth-based economy. He argues that the economic system favours excessive consumption in society and is unsustainable. He suggests structuring economies around communities, rather than corporations.

    • Cannibals with Forks
      Widely recognised as being the foundation of the Triple Bottom Line approach, the book was published in 1997 by the author John Elkington. In the book, Elkington redefined the financial bottom line of a corporation by adding social and environmental dimensions and developing the notion of “people, planet, profit”.

    • Cradle to Cradle
      Authored by the architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart in 2002, the book brings an innovative approach to production and design. They explain that we can achieve a regenerative economy through the design and designing products in a way that benefits society, the economy and the environment from start to finish.

    • Sustainability: A Cultural History
      In this book, the author Ulrich Grober sets out to shed more light on the concept of sustainability and dives into the literature to reveal how the word has evolved over the years. Published in 2002, the book is a very interesting source for those who are interested in the origins and history of the sustainability.

    Deep Dive

    Here you can dip into our selection of "must-knows" on the topic of sustainability. You will find interesting and relevant academic papers, the latest reports from sustainability experts and institutions. All of them have been hand selected for you!

    Academic Papers

    • A Brief Journey To The Origins Of Sustainability
      Have you ever struggled to give a definition of sustainability, when you've been asked? Or, perhaps, you have your own definition of sustainability but recognise that your perspective on sustainability is vastly different to other people's views? Please read Impact Garden contributor Gulcin’s deep dive into the history.

    • Three academic studies to read about the deep meaning of sustainability
      Although it’s hard to believe, there is not a universal definition nor a common history of the origins of sustainability. How did the idea emerge? What is the central meaning beyond the definitions? This is a summary of three academic papers that throw light on the concept of sustainability, questioning the fundamentals that it's based on through three different perspectives. The academic papers for this summary are:

    • Distinction between sustainability, well-being and welfare
      This academic paper by Tom Kuhlman and John Farrington discusses the definition of sustainability and critiques the three dimensional concept, namely social, economic and environmental approaches. The paper proposes merging the social and economic dimensions into well-being, and combining these dimensions to form well-being and sustainability.

    • Theories of change in sustainability science: Understanding how change happens
      The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out 17 globally negotiated goals to achieve sustainable development. This involves fundamental changes in political, societal, ecological, economic and cultural relations. The research paper addresses the importance of sustainability science as a means of producing knowledge to promote transformation towards sustainable development and analyses how theories of change in sustainability science can help.

    • Global Sustainability: Towards a Definition
      Is the goal of global sustainability really achievable? If achievable, how do we know when global sustainability has actually been achieved? By way of a contribution towards answering these questions, this research assumes that the answers depend very much on how one defines sustainability and attempts to clarify the terms sustainable, sustained, and sustainability within the global context. In particular, the article focuses on: sustainable biological resource use, sustainable agriculture, carrying capacity, sustainable society and sustainable economy, sustainable energy and sustainable development.

    • Review of sustainability terms and their definitions
      This research paper concentrates on the terms, definitions and interconnections around the topic of sustainability. The authors shed light on the 51 terms used to identify sustainability by classifying the terms, summarising their definitions and, in some cases, suggesting improved definitions for these terms.

    • Connecting climate action with other Sustainable Development Goals
      There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve by 2030, whilst also combating climate change. Will the achievement of the targets be affected by climate change? This research paper examines the conflicts and the synergies of these commitments and explores the impact of climate change on the SDGs.


    • The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019
      We have 10 more years left to achieve the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 from the United Nations (UN) outlines the state of play with regard to the agenda: How much progress has been achieved and where should we most urgently direct our attention?

    • What People Know and Think About the Sustainable Development Goals
      Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in other words “people’s goals”, requires engaging with citizens, listening to and responding to their understanding of the concept. This study by OECD Development Communication Network explains the level of public awareness with regard to the SDGs based on the results of international surveys.

    • Future of Sustainability, as of early 2019
      Forum for the Future (FFF) has published its Future of Sustainability report 2019: driving systems change in turbulent times. The report identifies seven major changes, set in early 2019, which have great potential to effect change in 2020. The report focuses on the key changes, their potential implications and the patterns signalling these changes. The report is downloadable or you can also have a look at it online with some interactive features.

    • The Sustainable Development Report 2019
      The latest edition of the Sustainable Development Report 2019 is available now. Published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the report presents the SDG indicators and their changes over time from all 193 UN member states, as well as projections up to 2030, the expected end date. Unfortunately, none of these countries are on track to meet all the goals by 2030.


    Arts & Sustainability

    • Art and Sustainability
      Explore the connection between humans and sustainability through paintings. ACCIONA and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid collaborated to present "Art and Sustainability: Reflections on some social challenges through the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection”. You can see the 12 works included in this theme on the museum website or the ACCIONA YouTube channel.

    • Playing For Change
      Playing for Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music. The idea for this project came from a shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.

    • Creative Responses to Sustainability
      Since 2015, The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) has been publishing country-specific guides, "Creative Responses to Sustainability", through its arts and culture portal. The guides highlight the arts organisations in several countries across Asia and Europe, that address sustainability through their artistic works and programmes. There are seven guides available for the following countries: Singapore (2015), Korea (2016), Indonesia (2017), Australia (2018), Portugal (2019), with a spin-off in the series about the city of Berlin (2017) and Spain (2019).

    Trends & Events

    • Seven Major Trends in Sustainability
      April is Earth Month! Forum for the Future, a global nonprofit organisation advocates for systems change to promote sustainability, has recently published a report entitled "Driving Systems Change in Turbulent Times". Forum advances seven trends that have major implications for how (or if) we will be able to address the current global environmental challenges.

    • UN International Days - "Shaping a Future Together"
      The United Nations designates specific days, weeks, years and decades as occasions to mark particular events or topics in order to promote the Organisation's objectives through awareness and action.

    People & Planet

    • Explore population growth and its impact on the Earth from 1 C.E. to 2050
      The human population on Earth is predicted to reach 10 billion by the end of this century. How many people can our world support? What is the carrying capacity for our planet? The website World Population History traces the human population starting from the 1 C.E. and projects the impact of population growth via an interactive map which includes important milestones, land use, fertility rates, CO2 emissions, life expectancy and urbanisation.

    • This recent analysis of the worldwide carbon emissions surge is compellling evidence presented by The Economist (you can sign up and read a few articles for free!)

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