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Published June 7, 2017

Is sustainable economy a murky taboo?

The answer is yes. Sustainable economy is a concept with conflicting interpretations, a concept that the policy documents of sustainable development have not even attempted to define and that is not sufficiently debated in society.
Writers
Lead, Communications and Public Affairs, Sitra
Tuula Sjöstedt is responsible for communications on carbon-neutral circular economy, climate and energy at Sitra.
Senior Lead, Foresight and Strategy, Sitra
Eeva Hellström is a senior lead in strategy in Sitra's foresight operations. Behind these words, you can find someone who is both a thinker and a doer. In her hands, complicated content is creatively fused and individual ideas are shaped into effective concepts.

Some define sustainable economy as a smoothly functioning economic system, while others say it is sustainable production and consumption. Still others see it as a new way of thinking that will shake the foundations of society and redefine the central economic concepts – including economic growth. Yet almost all agree that we cannot waste time debating definitions. The time to act is now.

Words and actions both count

To start the European Sustainable Development Week, the state and future of sustainable development (link in Finnish) were discussed in prestigious company on 31 May. Permanent Secretary Paula Lehtomäki quoted an unnamed company executive on what sustainable development needs:

“We need to turn words into actions.”

President Tarja Halonen showed her agreement by calling out “That’s a good one!”

There are already many actions being planned and taken related to sustainable economy – as well as sustainable production and consumption. However, since sustainable economy is such a murky taboo, it is especially challenging to enforce the related societal discussion – i.e. the words. Both actions and words are necessary.

According to a recent statement by the Expert Panel on Sustainable Development, we need to move forward from the stagnant back and forth arguments related to the pursuit of economic growth. We need to discuss what kind of progress we want to achieve through economy and by what means.

“And we need to involve everyone in this discussion; ordinary people as well as global parties”, stated the audience in unison.

Expert Panel on Sustainable Development member Jaakko Kiander also stressed the fact that the discussion on sustainable economy needs more positive, solution-driven voices, since constant threats lose their effect.

Sustainable economy is a means

To achieve sustainable development, economy needs to be regarded as a tool for reaching sustainable well-being and not as a target in itself. According to Finnish policy on sustainable development, sustainable economy is a way of creating well-being and better quality of life as environmental impacts are reduced.

In a discussion led by Eeva Hellström, members of the Finnish Expert Panel on Sustainable Development Tuuli Hirvilammi and Jaakko Kiander presented their recommendations on how the economy can be used as a method of promoting sustainable development.

“Renewing the energy system holds a key position”, said Kiander, “as do infrastructure investments on water and transportation systems.”

Hirvilammi then stressed that productivity and efficiency should not be measured with money only: “We need new indicators of ecological efficiency so that we can successfully become a carbon-neutral society.”

In the long term, technological development will solve many problems. However, we need solutions for issues such as reducing climate change today and not in 50 years. President Halonen also reminded everyone that there is not an infinite amount of time left.

Sustainable development and economy need to be connected at the core

“The economy will not turn sustainable just by placing the word sustainable in front of it”, states Tuuli Hirvilammi. It needs to be bound to sustainable development at the very core.

 

Alongside president Halonen, Emeritus Professor Sixten Korkman also commented on sustainable economy. “Ecological sustainability is the most important dimension of sustainability since it is an existential question for us. But we cannot tackle it effectively unless we also address poverty”, says Korkman.

American economist Kenneth Boulding stated that “anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical is either mad or an economist,” but Korkman disagrees.

“It’s not about growth, but what the content of the growth is. We need to make sure that the growth is ecologically sustainable”, states Korkman.

Bot sustainable development and economic policy have an effect on all administrative branches. That is why the Finnish Expert Panel on Sustainable Development think that they need to be better connected. On this note, President Halonen suggested for the goals and indicators of sustainable development to be included in the preliminary discussion of the budget. This way, the Government would have to think about the significance of their own choices to sustainable development, and at the same time, the realisation of the Government Programme could be measured with these indicators, as well.

At the end of the event, President Halonen described the Government’s policy on sustainable development with the words of her old gymnastics coach:

“You’re trying, but I know you have it in you to do better.”

So do you have it in you?

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