The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was a milestone in international environmental policy. Based on the definition of sustainable development formulated in the Brundtland Report of 1987 – and still recognised today – as »development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs«, sustainability was defined as an overall concept which, besides an ecological dimension, also encompasses an economic and a social dimension. Thus for the first time environmental and development issues were integrated in one comprehensive approach and discussed jointly within a broad international framework.
Twenty years later »sustainability« has developed into one of the key concepts of our time, although its nature as a universal model for the future is controversial. On one hand, this is down to the indeterminacy of the concept itself, which can be applied somewhat arbitrarily and in particular in the current debate is frequently narrowed down to issues of the environmentally-friendly economy. On the other hand, even 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit the notion of sustainability has yet to become a matter of everyday political practice: instead of developing comprehensive sustainability strategies and concepts, what frequently happens – if anything at all – is a »greenwashing« of existing structures. This is particularly astonishing given the fact that the confluence of serious economic, environmental and social crisis phenomena in recent years has made it crystal-clear that every dimension of our societies must be transformed on a sustainable basis.
The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) has taken a critical approach to the concept of sustainability and is developing ideas on how the notion of sustainability in political practice can promote comprehensive social change. We are actively working on strengthening the social dimension of the sustainability concept and integrating social justice, solidarity and democracy as key elements of models of sustainable forms of society.
Social justice, democracy, solidarity and freedom form the bases of any sustainable model of society. Accordingly, our activities within the focal themes sustainable economy, global governance, climate justice and sustainability and democracy are built on understanding sustainability as a multidimensional concept which encompasses environmental, economic and social aspects, as well as the question of societal participation and which aims to reach agreement democratically on a model of society that is based on sustainable use of natural and human resources. Through the systematic involvement of international civil society we can help bring it about that transformation processes are designed fairly and transparently and are socially embedded.
Our understanding of sustainability thus gives rise to the demand that ecologically sustainable economic models are not played off against development-policy objectives. Social sustainability in the context of developing and emerging countries must thus always also entail that the relevant notions of sustainable transformation open up development potential. In order to promote such potential and make it accessible we are reinforcing dialogue between social policy actors from developing, emerging and industrialised countries and thus supporting the necessary convergence of different positions and interests.