The concept of “sustainable development” is about steering humanity toward a sustainable future that doesn’t deplete our natural resources. Sustainable development describes the holistic, systems-based approach that ensures sustainability. Doing so at any scale can be challenging because of society’s competing economic, social, and environmental needs.
You might be wondering, how does this affect me? What can I do? You can start with educating yourself, making small lifestyle changes, or even considering a career in sustainable development.
In this article, you’ll learn about sustainable development, its importance, and potential career paths.
Sustainable development is the holistic, systems-based approach to ensuring sustainability. In the famed Brundtland Commission report, sustainable development is defined as “the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” .
That means answering the question, “how can we continue to develop and grow while ensuring we don’t deplete our natural resources?” The term “sustainable development” is often used in business, government, and non-profit spaces to refer to the processes and pathways required to balance economic growth, environmental stewardship, and social inclusion.
Sustainability is considered a paradigm for thinking about balancing environmental, economic, and social needs for the present and future. The word “sustainability” comes from the Latin word sustinere, made up of tenere (to hold) and sus (up). Broad concepts like gender equality, poverty, ecological restoration, and natural resource conservation are all types of sustainable development.
Learn more about sustainable development from world-renowned economics professor Jeffrey Sachs:
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) shared the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a “blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet” . Over 15 years, the UN pledged to adhere to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which called for global partnership by its member states.
These SDGs recognize that ending poverty and hunger is just as important as quality education, job opportunities, and infrastructure, in the quest to tackle climate change and preserve our oceans and forests.
Though the words are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a slight difference in their meaning. Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal, while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it .
Sustainable development can seem like an abstract concept without some real-life examples to make them come to life. You may already be familiar with some of these:
Green spaces: A perfect example of sustainable development manifested in the real world is green spaces. They are the antidote to skyscrapers. Parks, lakes, and forests are essential to cooling cities. Trees produce oxygen and help filter out air pollution. Governments that design cities to prioritize green spaces often promote commuting by foot or bicycle, further encouraging healthy lifestyles and well-being.
Solar energy: Renewable energy is a hot topic globally (literally). Using the sun’s energy to power electric grids can reduce emissions from power plants and other pollutants. You may have spotted solar panels on a neighbor’s rooftop. This technology continues to get cheaper and is sometimes subsidized by the government so that it is competitive with cost of electricity powered by fossil fuels.
Sustainable finance: Green spaces and solar energy might come to mind straight away when you imagine “sustainability,” but sustainable finance is another widely impactful sustainable development practice. It covers a range of activities, from funding green energy projects to investing in companies that demonstrate strong social values, such as including women on their board of directors.
There are many actions, big and small, that the average person can do to contribute to sustainable development. Here are a few examples.
Take a class: Learning is one of the easiest things you can do to tackle climate change. Whether you’re learning about the circular economy or food sustainability, you’ll gain a better sense of the global impact of urbanization and economic development. Then, you can decide whether you want to take bigger steps toward reducing your carbon footprint.
Reduce waste: Making attempts to eliminate waste from your life can make a difference. Try buying fruits and vegetables locally. Donate your old clothes to charity. Be mindful when purchasing new products—do you need fifteen cheap sweaters in every color, or can you make do with five well-made sweaters that you really love?
Opt for public transport: Taking the bus or subway is typically cheaper and better for the environment than driving a car or taking a shared car. You might also choose to walk or bike, if those are possibilities in your area.
Sign petitions and get involved: While individual actions are certainly helpful, you might feel empowered to gather like-minded people for additional momentum. Whether it’s signing a petition to unionize labor in your community or joining a local co-op, there are community-based actions you can take toward sustainable development.
Get a job in sustainable development: You might feel so passionately about social good that you want to align your career with your values. There are plenty of opportunities to work for an institution that contributes to one of the 17 SDGs. There are many sustainable jobs in fields as varied as education and nature conservation.
The UN lists more actions that people can take to do their part in The Lazy Person's Guide to Saving the World.
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Sustainable development is an ambitious goal that encompasses many broad fields, so there are plenty of jobs you can choose from.
Jobs at an intergovernmental organization like the UN are competitive, but the good news is there are plenty of non-profit organizations (NPOs) that contribute to the SDGs. You may have heard of the big ones, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
If you are passionate about gender equality, peace and conflict, or nature conservation, you can find jobs working as a monitoring and evaluations specialist, communications officer, or program coordinator. For most of these, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a related subject.
As you move up in your career, you may get promoted to manager- or director level positions. You can also choose to become a consultant in a niche issue like sustainability or a function like monitoring and evaluation.
Non-profit management requires leadership and project management skills. Some people choose to get a master’s degree in a related field like sustainability management, a master’s in public health, or an MBA.
When it comes to sustainable development, many big decisions are made at the policy level. If you envision yourself in a career in politics, or perhaps at a think tank, government agency, or research organization, then public policy could be the route for you. You could be a policy researcher or a politician.
This field tends to favor those with master’s or a PhD, so you’ll have to commit to several years of education. Contributing to nation- or worldwide policies can be incredibly fulfilling, because you’ll have the power to make influential decisions.
Law is another broad field that can enable you to contribute to sustainable development. If you choose to pursue a law degree, it is up to you whether you want to become a lawyer, work for an NPO or in academia, become a journalist, or work as legal counsel in a private company. Some legal jobs lean more on the humanitarian side, like working as a public defender or advocating for climate change policies.
As our world becomes increasingly urbanized, strategizing cities for optimal human conditions can be a fascinating, challenging field to discover. You could become an urban planner specializing in community development or historic preservation, collaborating with public officials, engineers, architects, lawyers, and real estate developers.
Within education, schoolteachers can practice “greening” their curriculums, or infusing sustainability wherever possible, such as field trips to the community garden. Placing women and girls at the forefront of economies, education, and leadership can drive more equitable decision-making. As a teacher or professor, you can advocate for gender equity in the classroom, along with other sustainable actions.
Data science can be applied to nearly any field, which means you could become a data analyst or data engineer that works on making data more accessible for policymakers. You can also apply data science toward climate change by working for a sustainable company or organization, such as one that uses satellite data to measure air quality. Data can enable more efficient, evidence-based decision-making that measures progress on the SDGs.
Learn about sustainable development from Jeffrey Sachs, the founder of SDG USA, a non-governmental initiative to promote SDGs in the United States. In his course The Age of Sustainable Development from Columbia University, you’ll learn the key challenges and pathways to sustainable development—economic development that is also socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.
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The United Nations. “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf.” Accessed November 17, 2022.
Springer. “Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility pp 2370–2378Cite as Sustainability and Sustainable Development, https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-642-28036-8_662.” Accessed November 17, 2022.
The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “The 17 Goals, https://sdgs.un.org/goals.” Accessed November 17, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.