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A Very Brief History of Sustainability

By Perry Goldschein

By the 1960s, pollution of our air, land and water reached frightening levels. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio, for example, caught fire for the third time in 1969 due to debris, fuel and chemicals. This pollution often came from extractive, development and energy industries, but also from the vast and rapidly growing number of motorized vehicles, as well as other individual sources.

The people, their watchdogs and politicians saw this was not good for our natural environment or public health, and said “let something be done.”

By the 1970s, some of those people included early, visionary entrepreneurs like Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s legend. They recognized that business could be used as a powerful vehicle for environmental conservation and social change.

They were eventually joined by thousands of other sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs. Green America alone (formerly Co-op America), a not-for-profit membership organization founded in 1982, now counts nearly 5,000 screened members in its green-business network, nearly all of them small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs). These include such brands as Aveda, Seventh Generation and Stonyfield Farm.

Over the last 10 years, several of these leading-edge SMEs have been acquired by Fortune 1000 companies, often for tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, proving the value created even by smaller businesses that tackled sustainability issues head on and made them integral to their brands.

Others looking to address sustainability problems included legislators and policy makers who created and implemented a variety of national and state laws to conserve and protect the environment, gaining steam in the 60s and early 70s. By the 1980s, it became clear to them that a major problem preventing larger, industrial businesses from being more sustainable was their focus on removing or treating their wastes. These companies didn’t generally consider improving process efficiency, product designs, or anything else that could impact pollution or waste.

Policy makers and environmental executives came to realize that almost any company could significantly reduce its resource use, waste and pollution by a systematic analysis of the sources of its waste and responding to reduce it where feasible. This came to be known as going “up the pipe” from the discharge, to the production processes, and even further to the purchasing and supply operations, and ultimately to the design of the products themselves.

In 1990, this systematic analysis and response were formalized. Congress enacted the National Pollution Prevention Act and the US EPA called the approach “Pollution Prevention.” Elsewhere, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) established similar principles and called the approach “Cleaner Production,” and this became the term used around the world except in North America.

Pollution Prevention and traditional philanthropy became two of the inspirations for the growing number of smaller “social enterprises.” The International Standards Organization’s ISO 14001, the UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative, among other major sustainability initiatives have all added to that inspiration, while helping to expand sustainability’s definition to include the social as well as environmental.

Pollution Prevention and philanthropy were also precursors for the larger, regulated companies’ increasingly popular corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. CSR starts with the premise that the definition of stakeholders goes well beyond investors to include customers, employees, suppliers, partners, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), communities and the environment, among others.

Many larger companies have begun building sustainability or social responsibility principles into their policies and operations – even their product designs – as well as trying to be more accountable and transparent in large part because of the pressure applied by their stakeholders. In fact, many large companies now issue a voluntary sustainability/CSR report alongside their standard annual reports (nearly one-third of the S&P 500 did so in 2008).

Like smaller, green/social enterprises, larger companies with CSR initiatives are using business principles to organize, create and manage a venture to drive environmental and social change. They now measure success in terms of the bottom line and the environmental and social benefits.

This article was first published on, in December 2009. SDialogue, LLC partner Perry Goldschein can be reached at

This article is quoted from the Responsible Travel Report The Sustainable Tourism e-Newsletter Vol. 8 No. 1, January 2010 published by STI.

This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.

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