Sustainability is a concept that evolves due to pressing sustainability challenges, worldwide issues, and its own concept limits. New concepts have emerged to think further and respond better to all the world’s current challenges.

Below are the recent developments and new concept arising from sustainability:


Sustainability is key in the fight against environmental issues, but the planet needs humanity to go one step further: striving not only to prevent harm but to redress that imbalance and regenerate what has been lost.

Sustainable regeneration must replenish and restore its resources, it must “heal” environmental, economic and social wounds. It is not just about limiting negative impact, it’s about having a positive impact.

To achieve this, companies must take regenerative actions.

It can be not just taking zero deforestation commitment, but also working to reforest and regenerate ecosystems, or not just paying properly workers and farmers, but also allowing them to develop their business and have a positive long-term impact benefiting a larger community.

Planetary boundaries

In 2009, Johan Rockström, a Swedish internationally recognized scientist for his work on global sustainability, led a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists to identify the processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system.

The scientists proposed a set of 9 quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

The 9 planetary boundaries are:

1. Stratospheric ozone depletion

The decrease of the stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filter out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. This can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems.

2. Loss of Biosphere Integrity (Biodiversity loss and extinctions)

The human demand for food, water, and natural resources causes severe biodiversity loss and leads to changes in ecosystem services.

3. Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities

Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds, and radioactive materials in the environment.

4. Climate change

Greenhouse gas emissions and concentration in the atmosphere rise to a point where it disrupts the climate-carbon cycle. Earth system thresholds are exceeded to tipping-point where climate-carbon cycle feedbacks accelerate Earth’s warming and intensify the climate impacts.

5. Ocean acidification

CO2 dissolved in the oceans forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the number of available carbonate ions, an essential ‘building block’ used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation. 

6. Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle

Human modification of water bodies includes both global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapor flows arising from land-use change. Human pressure is now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems.

7. Land system change

Land (forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other vegetation types) is converted to human use all over the planet, having serious impacts on biodiversity reduction, water flows, and the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other important elements.

8. Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans

Nitrogen and phosphorus are both essential elements for plant growth. Their biogeochemical cycles have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes.

9. Atmospheric aerosol loading

Aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle affecting cloud formation and global-scale and regional patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions.

Today, humanity has already crossed 5 planetary boundaries:

  • Climate change
  • Land system change
  • Loss of Biosphere Integrity (Biodiversity loss and extinctions)
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans (biogeochemical flows)
  • Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities

Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Doughnut model or Doughnut Economics

Doughnut Economics is a visual framework for sustainable development, shaped like a doughnut, combining the concept of planetary boundaries detailed above with the complementary concept of social boundaries.

It acts as a compass for humanity’s 21st-century challenge: meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.

It was developed by the economist Kate Raworth in her 2012 paper A Safe and Just Space for Humanity and elaborated upon in her 2017 book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.

The diagram consists of two concentric rings. A social foundation — to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials, and an ecological ceiling — to ensure that humanity does not collectively overshoot planetary boundaries.

Between these two boundaries lies a doughnut-shaped space that is both ecologically safe and socially just — a space in which humanity can thrive.

The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

Source: Kate Raworth

As a systemic model, the doughnut is used and implemented by different actors in society, to adopt new business models.

Sustainability pitfalls

Confusion between “green” and “sustainability”

Over the past years, sustainability has been very often linked to the notion of green growth and “green” arguments and actions, notions that are moreover criticized today because they do not take sufficient account of other critical issues like social responsibility issues or resources availability.

There is a major difference between “Green” which is strictly concerned with environmental health and “Sustainable” which is concerned with environmental health, economic vitality, and social benefits.

This confusion is due to the incorrect use of the terms “green” and “sustainable” synonymously and interchangeably in the public space.

Greenwashing and social-washing

The increasing public consideration for sustainability pushes companies to use the sustainability argument wrongfully and falsely to attract customers and to improve public perception.

Greenwashing uses environmental arguments, while social-washing uses social responsibility arguments.

Washing is used in communication in different ways:

  • the use of the argument of sustainable development when the approach initiated by the company is either almost non-existent or very partial, not very solid, not widely deployed among employees
  • a message that could mislead the consumer about the real ecological quality of the product or the reality of the sustainability approach.

While greenwashing and more broadly washing are not new, it has increased over recent years to meet consumer expectations for companies’ sustainable commitment and then demand environmentally-friendly and socially responsible goods and services.

Companies must address sustainability issues properly by adopting a robust, sincere, and transparent approach.

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