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What Does the Future of Sustainability Look Like?

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

What does the future of sustainability look like?

Over 30 years, Our Common Future, otherwise known as the Brundtland Report, defined sustainable development in a way we are all most familiar with. The book, published by the United Nations, was the result of a 900-day exercise that looked at written submissions and expert testimony from “senior government representatives, scientists and experts, research institutes, industrialists, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and the general public” held at public hearings throughout the world.

The definition provided back then is one we still refer to:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

30 years ago this was a great definition, but as we take stock of the world around us - where we are now, where we are headed, and all the potential crises along the way - it’s a definition that is no longer fit for purpose. It’s time we looked at the future of sustainability with fresh eyes and new information.

The Problem With This Definition

One of the major drawbacks of this definition is its vagueness - what present needs does it refer to? Who do they belong to? What needs will future generations have to fulfil?

Take the needs of the average New Zealand family, for instance. You probably need food, water, shelter, clothing - all the basics, right? Then you add in another layer - school supplies, perhaps office equipment, or a car to transport you to work. Then add in another layer - medical care, government assistance and so on.

Now, compare this with the needs of a family in Africa.

See where I’m going here? ‘Needs’ is subjective; it’s different from person to person.

And what about the future generation and their ability to meet their needs?

As we’ll discuss later in this article, the way the world has already been shaped, and the current trajectory it’s on, means our children are likely to have drastically different needs than we do now.

As you can see, being sustainable and acting in a way that benefits future generations requires a great deal of forward-thinking. The issue becomes one of predictability - how do we define a future when we live in a rapidly changing world? How do we define something as sustainable when it may actually be doing more harm that we don’t yet know about?

For example, in a TEDx Talk, Stuart Oda, an investment banker turned farmer, discusses one of the biggest challenges facing society - feeding a booming global population.

In this talk he discusses indoor vertical farms and how this non-traditional farming method is using less water, less land and provides safe food that is not affected by the outside environment, as it is grown in a climate-controlled warehouse, sometimes 14 stories high!

This forward-thinking idea has taken the unknowns - water access, land fertility, climate change - out of the equation, and offers a sustainable solution for feeding future generations.

A Look Into the Future: What Will Sustainability Look Like in 10 Years?

Defining sustainability for the future is a difficult task, but it is a conversation we all need to be having as our window to impact change is slowly, but surely, closing.

1. It will have different meanings to different people

It might seem obvious, but what is sustainable for one person may not be sustainable for another.

Sustainability, particularly its definition, will need to be broad enough to be useful while also flexible enough to be applicable to different people and situations.

For example, sustainability can be defined differently:

  • By sector - what is sustainable for a farming community might not be sustainable for a large city, and vice versa

  • By region/geography - similar to our above example, the average Kiwi family approaches sustainability very differently to an African family

  • By individual and collective needs - is it sustainable if certain individuals can’t meet their needs, but others can?

  • By available resources - water, land, and other inputs

  • By business outcomes - is it sustainable for a business to run at a significant loss by implementing a new process?

To this point, it is also important to consider the variety of trade-offs that come from being sustainable:

  • Cycling is sustainable but less time-efficient than a car

  • Electric cars are more efficient than petrol-powered but are still costly to produce

  • Public transport reduces an individuals carbon footprint but may impact their ability to work or transport large items

A significant aspect of sustainability in the future will be about understanding how it is defined and the trade-offs that come about, even the ones we don’t know of yet.

2. There will be a significant focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions

While we believe the definition of sustainability will change in the future to be more encompassing, one of the core aspects will still be the reduction of greenhouse gas.

Again, this will mean different things for different industries, but as farmers, we predict this will impact us in a number of ways:

  • How we power our operations and machinery will change to renewable fuel, such as bio fuels and or hydrogen.

  • The efficiency of production as farms will be measured. For dairy farms, this will include choosing efficient breeds for milk, fewer cows per hectare so that you get more milk per cow, and a focus on animal health and longevity. It takes 2 years for each replacement cow to produce milk, but at this time they are still responsible for emitting greenhouse gas.

  • Most farmers will be monitoring performance using computer models which help set optimum stocking rates and targets for each farm.

  • There will be more integration with the beef industry so that all calves born in a dairy herd will be reared. Traditional beef farming has to carry the emissions of the breeding cow which only produces one calf per year. This will probably mean that there will be increased use of sexed semen to get dairy replacements and beef breeds used to supply beef farmers.

  • Animal shelters will be more common to collect urine over autumn and winter. This reduces nitrate losses and consequently the production of the potent GHG nitrous oxide.

  • The use of palm kernel expeller and grains for dairy cow feed will be reduced because of the extra GHG associated with its production.

  • The dairy industry will have pushed through gene editing so that there are more GHG mitigations available such as drought and heat tolerant pasture species and boluses of methane eating microbes that are given to cows to reduce methane production.

3. Sustainability will become a business model

Consumer demand forces businesses to change and adapt, and being a sustainable business can actually become a driving force rather than a positive outcome.

This is not a new concept, though. We can go back a decade and see international brands such as The Body Shop place ethics and nature at the heart of everything they do. But at the time they were an outlier, in the future, more businesses will place significant emphasis on sustainability as not only a differentiator but their purpose. We have already seen this with the number of ‘green’ startups, those focused on creating environmental change while also turning a profit.

There will also be a shift towards organic production across all industries that have the ability to take this approach.

For farmers, we’ll see more and more landowners planting trees to help protect soil health and stabilise marginal pastoral landscapes currently being degraded by traditional farming methods.

Other drivers for a push towards organic production include collapsing ecosystems due to extremes of weather causing further loss of biodiversity.

4. Accountability and transparency will reign supreme

As consumer perceptions change, and demand to support sustainable businesses grow, so too does the need for transparency, and not simply as a marketing strategy or brand message.

Consumer’s are too savvy to be fooled by some quick PR and a social media campaign. So being open, honest and transparent about your wins and failures will be important for brands and businesses looking to compete in the future.

We will also see a rise in accountability. As we become more and more aware of the consequences of our actions, and as the public put pressure on those doing the wrong thing to be punished, governments and regulatory bodies will need to step up their level of action.

5. Education will play a pivotal role in defining sustainability for future generations

I’ll clarify this by saying that education is not solely the responsibility of a school or university, the private sector will play an important role in teaching younger generations, as well as being transparent with other stakeholders, such as local residents and communities.

While educational institutions, through research and education, can inform future generations of what it means to be sustainable, open discourse between businesses and the public will help shape not only how we think of sustainability, but offers a chance for ideas to be built upon and improved, or even implemented in new scenarios.

6. Will be driven by private sector and supported by public policy

As always, individuals have the largest role to play. Our daily choices impact how businesses operate, and the cumulative impact of these choices has a huge impact on the earth.

By supporting businesses doing the right thing, we signal our intent to the rest of the market that profits do not come before the environment.

At the same time, public policy shifts to meet public opinion. If we make demands of our elected officials, sustainability becomes a key election item. As more and more laws are passed, sustainability becomes more important for business. Examples of such laws and policies include carbon credits to help offset GHG emissions.

7. The role of consumers will become increasingly important

Further to the point above, there is so much that consumers can do in their own lives to impact sustainability outside of supporting sustainable businesses.

In the future consumers will be more discerning, looking to reduce food consumption and wastage.

The current generation of children, who have grown up learning about sustainability and the challenges facing our planet will bu hugely impactful in shaping sustainability. They will produce more items themselves, grow their own herbs and vegetables, and upcycle and recycle clothing and furniture.

Community gardens will flourish and there will be a growing trend towards locally produced food that, due to lower transport requirements, is responsible for less GHG emissions and pollution.

8. A shift in eating habits

We are predicting a significant change in the way we choose and consume food. Eating of seasonal fruits and vegetables will become an important aspect of our diet, since these are easier to grow when working with mother nature.

We will consume less meat and dairy products, as these are responsible for such large amounts of GHG.

There will also be a shift towards farmed fish as overfishing threatens the delicate balance of our aquatic ecosystems. As we become more aware of the interconnectedness of all natural systems, we are beginning to realise the important role the oceans play in our survival, and this will lead to new business opportunities for fisheries who can improve on their operations.

9. Rise of the circular economy

Our bottle exchange is a perfect example of the circular economy - by choosing reusable glass bottles we can help keep resources in the supply chain for longer, rather than a continual approach of take-make-waste.

As the global population grows, resource scarcity will become an increasingly significant hurdle that we must overcome. In order to meet our growing needs, greater emphasis will must be placed on recycling not just material items, but also our energy.

Investment in renewable energy sources will continue to grow as the world begins to wind down it’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Finally, commercial partnerships that see waste products reused for new purposes will play an important role in future sustainability.

10. Innovation will become increasingly important

Innovation will continue to be one of the strongest ‘movers of the needle’ when it comes to sustainability. Everything in the supply chain, regardless of industry or sector, can be improved and made more sustainable, which feeds into the next point.

11.Financing and investment models will change as banks look to align with consumer interests

As public concerns rise over investment and funding of businesses who continue to operate in unsustainable ways, there will be a shift as banks, large and small, look to cut lending to major polluters.

In tandem with this, investment funds will look to go ‘green’ - creating investment portfolios and allocating finance for companies looking to make a positive impact on the world as more and more start-ups and entrepreneurs look to tackle the issue of climate change.

Where to From Here?

It’s hard to pin down a future when there is so much uncertainty - both good and bad. Continual innovation is bringing us new ways to do things everyday, while the persistence and stubbornness of ‘traditional’ businesses and those who continue to pollute cloud the future and what it might bring.

But there is hope, and there are things everyone can do to ensure a future that is healthy, prosperous and sustainable.

The first thing is to open a dialogue. Don’t be afraid to talk about sustainability, even when it is not always comfortable. Only through discussion can the conversation move forward.

Vote with your wallet. Support businesses that engage in sustainable practices. Individuals, particularly on a consumer level, can have much more impact than you might think.

Finally, be open to new things. While change is not always comfortable, embracing new methods in an effort to improve our own approach to sustainability has the potential for huge impacts. The cumulative impact of individual choices has huge potential for change.

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