The Journey of Sustainability Concept

In the 18th century, with the rise of industry, the concept of development, which found itself at the top of the world’s agenda, brought with it increasing production and consumption needs. Over time, these needs led to the widespread use of an “unrestrained” approach to the consumption of natural and human resources.

This approach, however, was increasingly criticised. The criticisms, together with the political atmosphere of the 1970s, triggered the need to establish a balance between development and the natural environment all over the world. All these developments paved the way for the concept of sustainability to come to the fore. After the 1970s, the concept of development would begin to be mentioned together with the concept of sustainability, and this concept would be embraced by many organisations around the world. The United Nations comes at the forefront of these organisations (Caradonna, 2014).

The concept of sustainability, which was first introduced in 1987 in the so-called Brundtland Report by the United Nations, is initially used in an identical manner with sustainable development and is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

The first important breaking point before the sustainability concept reached its definition given in the Brundtland report, which we use today, is presented as the report titled “Limits to Growth”.The report, written by the Club of Rome in 1972, draws attention to the fact that the relationship between the economy and the natural environment is a relationship of dependence and includes data on the destruction of nature caused by development. Following this report, the “United Nations Conference on the Human Environment”, organised in Stockholm in 1972, was the first universal event to include the concept of sustainable development within the framework of the relationship between environment and development. At the conference, discussions were held on the environmental problems caused by industrialisation in developed countries and the impact of these problems on development, the unique situation of developing countries and finding solutions to these problems. After this conference, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established (BCSD Turkey, 2017).

Following these pioneering activities, the “UN Conference on Human Settlement – Habitat I” was held, the “World Conservation Strategy” was published by the UN Environment Programme, the “United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development” was established in 1983, and with the publication of the Brutland Report in 1987, the concept of sustainability became widespread in real terms.

Another important breaking point in the concept of sustainability comes with the discussion that the concept is not only limited to the environment, but also has reflections in many other areas. The starting point of the popularisation of these discussions was the “United Nations Conference on Environment and Development”, also known as the 1992 Rio Conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. As a result of this conference, an action plan called Agenda 21, which the participants were expected to implement voluntarily, was announced and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity – UNCDB and the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and Environment – UNFCCC emerged. After this date, the “Conference on Population and Development” was organised by the UN in 1995 in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, and with this conference, the relationship between population and sustainable development was again addressed at the international level. The “UN Conference on Human Settlements – Habitat II” held in Istanbul in 1996 drew attention to the relationship between the concept of sustainability and human settlements (Tıraş, 2012). As can be seen from this, the concept of sustainability, which was only discussed within the framework of the environment and environmental problems before the 1992 Rio Conference, has started to be discussed in a more inclusive manner, including the economy and society after the conference.

The next and most important milestone in the deepening of discussions on the content and diversity of sustainable development is considered as the “UN Millennium Summit” held in 2000. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which consist of 8 articles and were announced after this summit was held in New York, are a reflection of the discussions on the concept of sustainability until 2000.

The first development following the publication of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to draw attention to the role of the private sector, which was not listed in these goals, and to improve the relations of the UN and governments with the private sector. With the Global Compact established for this purpose, co-operation between the UN and the business world on the basis of the MDGs is taking place. However, even though such developments point in a positive direction, the fact that the scope of the goals is quite broad and their applicability is low leads to increased debates over time. At the same time, deficiencies in the concepts and measurement methods used in the goals (such as the calculation of poverty on the basis of gross national product), the lack of consideration of the main causes of poverty, the lack of detailed consideration of the relationship between gender equality and development, and the fact that the MDG only cover developing countries, even though they are stated to be targeting all countries, signal that the MDG should be reconsidered (Saith, 2006).

Today, the Sustainable Development Goals appear on the agenda of almost all social groups globally. The concept, which has been discussed in many of its aspects at both global and regional levels for nearly 50 years, is playing an increasingly central role. This indicates that the concept plays a key role and puts forward the importance of its discussion. In this sense, it is clear that the concept of sustainability will continue its journey for a long time.


Caraddona, J. (2014). From Concept to Movement. Sustainability, A History içinde. Oxford University Press.

Kuhlman, T., Farrington, J. (2010). What is Sustainability?, Sustainability, 2, 3436-3448.

Saith, A. (2006). From Universal Values to Millenium Development Goals: Lost in Translation, Development and Change, 37(6), 1167-1199.

SKD Türkiye. (2017). Sürdürülebilirlik Yolculuğumuz, 100 Maddede Sürdürülebilirlik Rehberi içinde.

Tıraş, H. H. (2012). Sürdürülebilir Kalkınma ve Çevre: Teorik Bir İnceleme. Danışma Kurulu/Advisory Board, 57.


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