The Evolution of Sustainability: Shaping Mindsets and Policies

By Andrea Thompson

Over the last 25 years I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of people to unleash their leadership potential. Since 2017, I have had a special focus on working with Aotearoa New Zealand’s sustainability leaders through the Sustainability Leadership Programme (SLP) I run in partnership with the Sustainable Business Council. Through SLP, I have had the opportunity to equip leaders with tools and knowledge to support them, and their organisations, to shift the dial on sustainability.

While tremendous progress has been made in New Zealand and world-wide, so much remains to be done. I believe leadership is the key lever to drive transformational change. But surveys show that most leaders lack the headspace and skillsets to lead on sustainability. And the sustainability community doesn’t have the leadership skills to enable to change we need.

We can start to close the leadership skills gap by sharing sustainability concepts with a wider audience. Knowing where sustainability as a concept has come from and evolved to can help us to shape appropriate policies and take action in the future.


The term sustainability originally referred to environmental sustainability, or using natural resources in a way that people in the future could continue to reply on them in the long term.

In 1972, the Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome, a group of eminent economists and scientists, warned the Earth had a limited supply of physical resources and that exceeding the limits of exploitation could end in catastrophe. This started a debate over whether high rates of economic growth were desirable or even possible.

The concept of sustainable development emerged in the 1970s as a compromise between the notions of development and conservation. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm concluded that sustainability shouldn’t focus only on economic and social matters, but also on matters related to the use of natural resources.

The 1983 UN Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) put forward a definition of sustainability that is still used today. The 1987 report, Our Common Future, defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However, this definition has been criticised for being anthropocentric (human-centred), excluding intra- generational equity, and its failure to question the ideology of economic growth.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, reflected a growing need to address social justice, equity, and inclusivity, incorporating a range of interconnected issues such as poverty eradication, gender equality, and climate action.


The three dimensions of sustainability are environmental, social, and economic. The relationship between these three elements has evolved over time and reflect different values.


Shareholder Value

Until relatively recently, creating shareholder value — potentially at the expense of society and the environment — was considered the sole purpose of business. The more a company was able to internalise gains and externalise losses, the more successful it would become. As awareness grew that such company behaviour isn’t sustainable on a finite planet, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability reporting emerged as ways to hold companies to account.

Shared Value

The term creating shared value was coined a few years ago to describe how companies can continue to make money where their business and social or environmental problems overlap. In this model business still comes first and negative impacts are often justified by doing good elsewhere.

Systems Value

In the systems value model, the economy, society, and the environment are nested in one another. This model emphasises that it’s the people in societies who decide what economic model to use. We are capable of changing society and its institutions. We must live within environmental limits.


In New Zealand, sustainability has developed from environmental conservation to embracing Māori perspectives, wellbeing, and regeneration.

Environmental Stewardship: Early Perspectives

In the early days, the focus was primarily on preserving natural resources and protecting ecosystems. New Zealand recognised the importance of safeguarding its unique biodiversity and natural heritage. The Wildlife Act 1953, for example, aimed to protect and manage the country’s wildlife and habitats, reflecting the early understanding of sustainability as environmental preservation.

Holistic Sustainability: Embracing Māori Perspectives

In recent years, New Zealand has recognised the importance of Māori perspectives in shaping sustainability definitions. The concept of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, reflects the interconnectedness of the environment, people, and culture. This holistic perspective has influenced policies, such as the inclusion of Māori values and knowledge in decision-making processes in many government departments, including the Ministry for the Environment.

Well-being and Regeneration: Current Direction

New Zealand is moving towards a definition of sustainability that emphasises well-being and regeneration. The Well-being Budget, introduced in 2019, represented a paradigm shift in policy- making. It focused on improving the well-being of New Zealanders alongside traditional economic indicators. The budget prioritised investment in mental health, child poverty reduction, housing, and environmental sustainability.

Recognising the urgent need to combat climate change, New Zealand enacted the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act in 2019. This landmark legislation sets ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the ultimate goal of achieving a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. The act establishes a framework for emissions budgets, a climate change commission, and adaptation plans, signalling the country’s commitment to a sustainable and resilient future.


The changing definitions of sustainability over time means that different people interpret ‘sustainability’ in different ways. If they think of environmental aspects, they might hear being ‘green’, environmentally friendly, or tree hugging. If they think of economic profitability, sustainability may mean financial success alone.

True sustainability involves examining the broader impacts of our actions on society and the environment, striving for equitable distribution of resources, and ensuring the well-being of future generations.

To engage others in exploring a more comprehensive model of sustainability, I recommend asking thought-provoking questions. For example:

  1. What kind of society do we envision for ourselves and future generations? How can we ensure that our actions contribute to the well-being and prosperity of all individuals within that society?
  2. How can we find an appropriate balance between economic growth and environmental protection? What innovative approaches could generate profits while minimising negative impacts on the environment? How can we go beyond doing less harm to contributing positively to society and the environment?
  3. What are the environmental boundaries within which we need to operate to ensure the long- term health of our planet? How can we effectively manage our resources to stay within those boundaries?
  4. How can we ensure that sustainability efforts are inclusive and considerate of social equity? What steps can we take to address social disparities and promote justice in our pursuit of a sustainable future?


The definition of sustainability globally and in New Zealand has evolved from an early focus on environmental conservation to a holistic approach encompassing social, economic, and cultural dimensions. This evolution has shaped mindsets and policies, highlighting the interconnectedness of people, nature, and culture. The current definition emphasises well-being and regeneration.