Bridging the unsustainability gap: a framework for sustainable development

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  • Company experience is thatenvironmental constraints are throttlingbusiness progress. Pressures fromlegislation, insurance, finance andstakeholders, who all demand evidence of environmental excellence, are everincreasing. At the same time, theeconomic system is driving business in a predominantly unsustainable direction.In view of this dilemma, the need for apractical methodology enabling the fullimplementation of sustainabledevelopment into business cannot beoverstated.

    Central to all this is a clear definition ofwhat sustainable development means forindustry in practice; how sustainableprocessing can be applied from firstprinciples and the adoption of totalsustainability as the ultimate goal.

    This paper aims to clarify theimportant issues involved in practicalsustainable development and to assemblethe elements of a practical methodology

    or toolkit, for the attainment of totalsustainability in business. Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERPEnvironment.

    Received 22 April 2002Revised 5 February 2003Accepted 16 April 2003


    I t would appear that environmental con-straints are throttling business progress(Rowledge et al., 1999; Nattrass andAltomare, 1999; Welford, 2000). Pressure fromlegislation, insurance, finance and stake-holders generally is demanding evidence ofenvironmental excellence, and it is increasingrelentlessly and irreversibly. At the same time, the economic system is driving businessin a predominantly unsustainable direction(Rowledge et al., 1999) Faced with thisdilemma and with sustainability increasinglybecoming a necessary condition for admissionto the market (Rowledge et al., 1999) the need for a practical methodology enabling thefull implementation of sustainable develop-ment in business and in industry cannot beoverstated.Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.


    Stefan Boron and Keith Murray*

    Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, UK

    Sustainable DevelopmentSust. Dev. 12, 6573 (2004)Published online 23 March 2004 in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/sd.231

    * Correspondence to: Keith Murray, Chemical Engineering Division, School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot Watt University, Riccarton Campus, Edinburgh EH14 4AS, UK. E-mail:

  • To make transition to sustainability a reality,the following necessary conditions have beenidentified (DTI/EPSRC, 2001).

    (i) Economic growth needs to be de-coupledfrom the negative effects of environmentalresource use.

    (ii) A proper definition and framework forsustainability in practice has to be established.

    (iii) An appropriate management toolkit tohelp achieve the necessary transition hasto be assembled.

    In addition, in order to assess the problemproperly, and to formulate a viable solution, awide variety of new or different paradigmshave to be taken on board. These includesimultaneous solutions to economic, environ-mental and social goals rather than trade-off(Rowledge et al., 1999); life-cycle thinking from cradle to grave (Azapagic and Perdan,2000; La Grega et al., 1994); and the adoption of sustainability as an overriding goal for business operations. Once accepted, these new perceptions create the necessary aware-ness framework, within which sustainabledevelopment can be realized.

    It is important to clarify the issues involvedin practical sustainable development and toassemble the elements of a methodology for the attainment of total sustainability inbusiness.

    Central to all this is a clear definition of whatsustainable development means for industry inpractice; how sustainable processing can beapplied from first principles and the adoptionof total sustainability as the ultimate goal.


    When the Tokyo declaration of the BrundtlandReport (World Commission on Environmentand Development, 1987) talks about a massiveshift in social objectives and advocates the

    breaking out of existing patterns, it actuallysingles out paradigm shift as a necessary con-dition for a successful transition to SustainableDevelopment. In many cases this shiftinvolves a return to facts and truths that havesomehow become lost in todays thinking. Theprinciple of concentricity (Mitchell, 2000), forexample, reminds us of our total dependenceon the environment. It reiterates the fact thatthe three domains of sustainability, namelyeconomics, society and the environment, areactually in a hierarchical relationship to eachother, rather than a co-planar one (Clift, 1998).Economics in fact is constrained, firstly byenvironmental and secondarily by sociallimits. It is subservient to both in a sustain-ability context and thus needs to be recon-figured to accommodate this higher realitywhen the three domains are consideredtogether in decision-making. This means thattrade-off becomes unacceptable as a man-agement mechanism for the attainment of sustainable development.

    The required economic reconfiguration,which involves the incorporation of bindingenvironmental and social laws into economicmechanisms (Pearce and Turner, 1990), is hap-pening slowly but surely although it was beingmooted at least 30 years ago (Schumacher,1974). In essence, this reconfiguration is happening by default rather than by design,for in practice economics is predominantlylinear (Engineering Council, 1994) and is stillrewarding processes and procedures that arefundamentally unsustainable. The economicsystem is still part of the problem rather thanpart of the solution.

    Driven therefore by unsustainable econom-ics on the one hand and constrained by envi-ronmental laws on the other, it is little wonderthat businesses resort to a trade-off betweenenvironmental damage and economic gain.They are willing to justify an acceptableamount of environmental degradation result-ing from their activities through the man-agement policy classed as eco-modernism(Welford, 2000).


    Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment Sust. Dev. 12, 6573 (2004)


  • Much of the strategy used to counteractenvironmental degradation today has beeninherited, and is built on a legacy of the past.Both the list of environmental impacts and theways of dealing with them have been moldedby history. Problems such as acid rain, ozonedepletion and climate change have beentackled on a one-problemone-solution basis.This has led to the present, problem-orientatedapproach to impact assessment and to the predominantly reactive, pollution controlstrategies in use today.

    Such thinking requires drastic revision ifprogress towards true sustainability is to bemade. No-one can control or steer such acomplex multifaceted system as sustainabledevelopment by using only reactive (feedback)control loops; the time-delays, measured inyears or even decades, are prohibitive.

    To achieve sustainability in business, anoverall strategy based on proactive manage-ment, which sets a definitive course towardssustainable development objectives, is indis-pensable. This is not entirely new, for proactivemanagement strategies (Robert, 2000) arefinding ever greater application in industry.Yet, this realization and these applications willnot, in themselves, guarantee the delivery ofsustainable development solutions in business.Not until an absolute level of sustainability isdefined will it be possible to assess the signifi-cance of sustainable development venturesand prioritize them accordingly. To simplyseek the more sustainable processing optionson a relative scale (Azapagic and Perdan, 2000)without an absolute reference point is notlikely to produce meaningful long-termresults.

    In order to be successful, management has tobe guided by a clear description of the salientfeatures of sustainability and of the definingfeatures of sustainable development, so thatproper objectives can be set.

    The proposed definition of an absolute levelof sustainability is something that goes muchfurther than the generalized concepts of theBrundtland definition and is more precise than

    the global principles of The Natural Step(Robert, 2000). Both can be viewed more as adirection setting compass, rather than a goalsetting target.

    Armed therefore with the further paradigmof an absolute sustainability level to aim for,sustainable development can be put into practice or operationalized in a deliberate andconsistent manner.

    Implementation of a fully proactive (feed-forward) management strategy will then be themain driver for the elimination of all forms of environmental and social insults arisingfrom the business activity. With sustainabilitydesigned into the system from the outset, andassuming a suitable management toolkit, anyenvironmental or social problems will be anticipated and the system will steer towardsits target objectives.

    This is akin to the Natural Steps back-casting, but with respect to a more explicitlydefined and absolute goal rather than thegeneral direction advocated by the four-systemconditions (Robert, 2000).


    Leading on directly from the Brundtland defi-nition, sustainable development is a systemfor the continuous and indefinite delivery ofwelfare through the meeting of needs. Theseneeds include ethical and moral aspects as wellas involving environmental and social goodsand services not provided explicitly throughthe economy.

    The model of sustainable development presented here is based on two conditions,which have to be fulfilled for the sustainabledevelopment to be true. First, the needs of theindividual and populations have to be met,which is the role of development itself. Second,these needs have to be met in a way that can go on forever, which is the essence of sustainability.


    Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment Sust. Dev. 12 , 6573 (2004)


  • Sustainable development

    Processes and inter-relationships are installedinto the development framework (Figure 1),and are operated to meet needs. Environmen-tal and social resources are converted intogoods and services, which are then made avail-able to populations and individuals. For thedevelopment to be sustainable, the processesinstalled within the framework have to be ableto go on indefinitely. They have to be sustain-able in themselves.

    Sustainable processing

    What makes a process sustainable and what needsto be done in order to allow a process to fulfill itswelfare generating function forever?

    This question cannot be answered directly interms of sustainability itself, because it is a lackof sustainability (or an unsustainability) thatmanifests itself most readily, as an environ-mental or social insult. Such a lack of sustain-ability is much easier to identify and deal with

    in practice and this concept of unsustainabilitywill therefore be used in the definition of sustainable processing.

    In summary therefore, a process, or a wayof doing things, is unsustainable when itundermines the environmental, social or man-ufactured resource inputs on which it depends(primary unsustainability), or on which otherprocesses depend (secondary unsustainability)(Figure 2).

    An unsustainable process can be said tocause resource availability infringements(RAIs) in one way or another, and converselya sustainable process is a way of doing thingsthat has no side effects. Sustainable develop-ment, therefore, is a welfare generating systemmade up of processing routes that have nodemonstrable unsustainabilities.

    Sustainability impact criteria

    In the model of sustainable development aspresented, resource availability infringement(RAI) is taken as the fundamental criterion for environmental and social impact.

    This is not the traditional historical impactderived from environmental insults such asglobal warming and acid rain. The RAIsdescribe impacts relative to the wider aspectsof sustainability because they directly identifyeffects that undermine the process inputsrequired to maintain process viability. Theseare pivotal to sustainable development andsustainability as described in Figures 1 and 2.The traditional impact list is more remote as itis restricted to environmental insults thatignore, for example, soil and water availability,climate stability and social equity.

    Sustainable development requires the con-servation and enhancement of the life-givingresources, which are all crucial inputs to theprocessing network of the economy. The list isgenerated by considering the capital input cat-egories given in Figure 2, plus other factorscontributing to the development scheme ofFigure 1. It includes inherent environmentaland social resource features, as well as the


    Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment Sust. Dev. 12, 6573 (2004)


    ProcessingInfrastructurethe way we do

    need satisfaction

    Social and Ecological Resources

    + Services



    goods + services

    Sustainable Development

    requires that this structure

    and its links be maintained for


    Poverty is a lack of

    need satisfaction

    results from the breaking

    of links

    Figure 1. Sustainable development schema. Develop-ment is the means by which resources of all types, including goods and services, are made available to populations and individuals to meet their needs. Theprocesses and distribution system installed must be ableto go on for ever if they are to be sustainable. Sustainabledevelopment is made up of sustainable processing roules

  • material, structural and organizational capitalresources that have been produced through theeconomy itself.

    Resource availability infringement link diagrams

    The central feature of unsustainability is thenegative side effect of processing expressed asa causal link between the process and an RAI.

    Processes that are unsustainable will usuallyhave a whole array of RAIs associated withthem. These can be gathered together in onediagram to provide a concise picture of the unsustainability profile of the processing route being considered (Boron and Murray,submitted).

    This source process and resource availabilityinfringement link diagram, or SPARAILdiagram, itemizes the unsustainabilities ascause/effect chains (Figure 3).

    It is important here to note that the entireoperation from raw material acquisition all theway to process output assimilation by the environment constitutes one continuous andintegral whole. The various parts of the entire system, cradle to grave, are totally inter-dependent and must be treated as such by theanalysis. To cover this, a whole array ofSPARAIL profiles is necessary.

    The list of links shown in these diagrams is not exhaustive and will expand as the RAI idea is refined and extended to includenon-inventory sources and causes. A particularstrength of the SPARAIL construction is the ease with which non-inventory policyitems (e.g. purchasing and investment) can be accommodated into the link structure as causes of RAIs alongside the traditional inventory items of material and energy flows.