Sustainable development

The overarching theme behind the current emphasis on environmental legislation is that of ‘sustainable development’.

WWW Research

Before reading further, try a web search under "sustainable development" + aims. If your search engine allows (as with AltaVista and Google, for example), it will probably be beneficial to confine your search to UK sites. From skim reading some of the material you find, can you draw any conclusions as to what the phrase “sustainable development” might mean.


Of Google’s three billion plus web pages, over one million respond to this search, and there is a wide variety of material attesting to the political importance of the topic. You will find many ‘quality of life’ statements of policy from all levels of government and much high-flown language, although not perhaps much evidence of real action. You will also be reminded of the World Summit on Sustainable Development which took place in Johannesburg in September 2002, marking the 10-year anniversary of the first ‘Earth Summit’ held by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro.

The concept of “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is however rather older:


In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as meeting “the [human] needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This concept implies that there are limits on environmental resources and the ability of the biosphere to absorb human activities. These limits are seen to have roots in technological inadequacies and inequitable social organization. Thus, sustainable development must entail a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs.

Washington State University Sustainable Development Sourcebook


This cuts across all elements of life and will impact all of us, both in our professional career and our personal/private lives. The principles of sustainability can be summarised as follows:

Although this module focuses on lead-free electronics, don’t lose sight of these wider principles, especially the last.

Other terms used in this general area are equally all-embracing. Your exploration will probably have uncovered the terms “product stewardship”, a ‘cradle-to-grave’ view of our responsibility for what we design, and “environmental integrity”, which is all about living within ecological limits, protecting natural resources, and having responsible patterns of consumption, reusing and recycling products as far as possible. There will be more about this topic in the final section of the unit.

The idea of sustainability brings up the whole question of how we measure our impact on the natural environment. This is an issue that pervades the entire subject of Design for Environment, and is the subject of continuing debate. It is easy to focus on the finer detail without identifying suitable measures of the wider problems. Typically, we measure ‘carrying capacity indicators’, such as water quality, air quality and species diversity.

The idea of sustainable development has been promoted for many years, but organisations are starting to take this aspect very seriously, as it impacts on the way they are perceived by their investors. For example, Dow Jones produce a ‘Sustainability World Indexes Guide’ (

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