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The future sustainability challenge

Charles Darwin would be fascinated by the major sustainability challenges of the modern world, not least because of the ongoing major extinction event caused by climate change (Warren et al. 2018)  validates his theory of natural selection (Darwin 1859). 

One in five species are currently facing extinction, and this is set to rise to 50% by the end of the 21st century (Grooten & Almond 2018).

There is, therefore, an urgent need to reduce the negative effects of human activity (United Nations Environment Programme 2015) and to encourage more sustainable attitudes and behaviours. Tertiary education has proven to be the key determinant of sustainable attitudes and behaviours (Nguyen et al. 2019).

CDU, therefore, has an important role to play in terms of educating and engaging consumers, businesses and stakeholders, as well as by conducting effective sustainability-focused research.

Future sustainability is dependent upon a balance or equilibrium between economic, environmental and societal interests (Hansmann, Mieg & Frischknecht 2012). Given this multidisciplinary situation, practitioners and academics should work together rather than in silos, to effectively address future sustainability challenges.

Economic challenges

Global economic development over the past 100 years is responsible for many of the most pressing sustainability challenges. For example, the exploitation of the environment for raw materials and energy production has wrought serious environmental and societal impacts. In spite of sustainability initiatives such as the Paris Agreement to combat climate change (United Nations Climate Change 2018), greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are increasing at an unprecedented rate (World Meteorological Organization 2017). Australia remains one of the leading per capita CO2 producers, despite declines in 2009 from a carbon tax intervention that was subsequently removed in 2010, largely due to pressure from the mining industry (Linden 2012).

A prerequisite for future sustainability is businesses placing more importance on environmental and societal goals, rather than just their sales and profit targets (Mitchell et al. 2017). Such profit-driven business culture is the most significant cause of unsustainable outcomes; yet despite extensive discussion in the literature, little has been achieved in terms of changing or ameliorating this. Shareholders demand double-digit returns on their investments, translating into double-digit financial growth targets for multinational brand and marketing managers, whose annual bonuses and career prospects are dependent on these. Such targets are often realised via production cost cutting (more sustainable practices often add to production costs, so are routinely dismissed), and by promoting the consumption culture where consumers consume more and buy things that they do not need. In conjunction with the consumer’s desire for convenience, such activity is escalating public ill-health, as well as driving pollution and unsustainable waste production.

Environmental challenges

While pollution of the land and oceans, and challenges associated with waste management are massive environmental problems, it is climate change driven by GHG emissions that is recognised as the most urgent sustainability issue (United Nations Environment Programme 2015). A recent report by the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change (2018) stated the world has a 12-year window for reducing GHG emissions before a tipping point is reached from which there is no return.

Combatting climate change by reducing GHG emissions is, therefore, another critical objective for future sustainability (Nguyen, Lobo & Greenland 2017). Climate change is causing environmental problems such as sea level and temperature rises for many countries. Increasing drought frequency and severity is hindering agricultural output (O’Mahony et al. 2016); with the United Nations forecasting that water and food insecurity will become the leading cause of conflict (CDP 2016). Australia provides a strong illustration of such climate challenges, with its agricultural sector experiencing the worst droughts in over 400 years (Freund et al. 2017).

Societal challenges

Sustainability challenges are also being driven by rapid population growth in emerging markets. The global population is predicted to increase from 7.5 billion in 2020 to 9.8 billion by 2050 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2017), which could be higher if China further relaxes its controversial one and two child policies (e.g. Gietel-Basten 2018). A 25% population increase means global sustainability challenges will only further escalate, particularly in emerging markets, given their limited public health and environmental regulations (Greenland, Johnson & Seifi 2016). 

Another societal sustainability challenge relates to poor lifestyle and consumption choices, which are responsible for the non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic. NCDs are the world’s biggest cause of chronic ill-health and death, mainly cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes (Moodie et al. 2013). The marketing of harmful products, which increases consumption, is a major cause of NCDs, including rapidly rising obesity rates that many countries are experiencing (Comans et al. 2013). Most manufacturers of harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol and junk foods high in salt and sugar use marketing tactics, including bulk-buy discounts, with the sole aim of increasing consumption rates.

As a society, we need to ask ourselves whether these marketing tactics are acceptable, particularly for products like tobacco, alcohol, soft drinks and junk food that are not only harmful but also addictive and escalate the NCD epidemic. Tougher global regulations on such marketing practices are required to protect public health.

Furthermore, escalating energy and product consumption rates are strongest in emerging markets, which also have the highest birth rates and the least amount of regulations. The profit-oriented business culture is consequently having maximum impact in these countries.  For example, in its recent annual report, British American Tobacco (BAT) described Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with minimal tobacco marketing regulations, as a growth engine market (Greenland 2012). Similarly, China, the world’s most populous country with similarly weak regulations, has amongst the highest rates of smoking. The NCD epidemic is a ticking time bomb set to explode in many emerging markets, and is, therefore, another major consideration for future sustainability initiatives.

These are excerpts from a forthcoming book chapter:

Greenland, S.J. (2019). Future Sustainability: A framework for understanding impediments to sustainable innovation, including socially irresponsible marketing, in D. Crowther, S. Seifi & A. Moyeen (Eds.), Approaches to Global Sustainability, Markets, and Governance book series, Springer.