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A Brief History of the Modern Sustainability Movement

Sustainability. It’s a big word. According to Lance Hosey and his use of the nifty Google Ngram viewer, more people search for “sustainability” than for Star Wars or Steve Jobs. Despite its popularity, it can be hard to define.

There’s sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, sustainable clothing, sustainable design, sustainable waste management…The list goes on and on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the buzzword and forget about what the concept actually means.

So what is sustainability?

The EPA sums up sustainability nicely in their definition:

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

Clearly, it’s a broad, expansive concept. It’s about maintaining everything we need and future generations will need to survive on our planet–so the sustainability movement is a broad, expansive concept, too.

It’s not easy to pinpoint when sustainability became an important movement. After all, many indigenous communities all over the world lived in “productive harmony” with their environments.

To keep it simple, we’ll focus on the modern sustainability movement. Study up with our brief history of sustainability and get familiar with the background behind the internet’s favorite buzzword.

A brief history of the modern sustainability movement

Let’s fast-forward to the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution brought great advances in technology like railroads, modern cities, and factories which all relied on energy sources like oil and coal.

Of course, these advancements all came with a price: overpopulation, pollution, disease. In reaction to these negative effects, a movement focused on sustainability and environmental protection grew.

Here’s where our timeline begins.

1892

John Muir is often called “the Father of National Parks.” Muir is often known for his work co-founding the Sierra Club in 1892.

At the time, the Sierra Club was meant for lovers of the outdoors. Some of their early work focused on protecting Yosemite National Park.

1901

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president. Amongst other things, Roosevelt became well-known for his passion for nature and conservation. He was heavily influenced by John Muir.

During his presidency, he created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game reserves, 5 national parks, and 81 national monuments.

1949

After World War II, the U.N. held the very first conservation conference. The U.N. Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources took place in 1949.

Hundreds of experts from around the world gathered to discuss how to conserve resources like land, water, wildlife, and energy.

1955

Congress enacted the Air Pollution Act in 1955. This act simply focused on researching the effects of air pollution and didn’t include other items for the government or companies to act upon.

1969

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was established in 1969, as a result of the growing sustainability movement.

NEPA requires all executive federal agencies to perform environmental assessments and environmental impact statements.

1970

In 1970, we celebrated the very first “Earth Day” which took place on April 22nd.

In the same year, the U.S. government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passed the Clean Air Act.

The EPA was formed by executive order to drive environmental research and education, as well as enforcing environmental standards and laws.

In 1970, the EPA administered a wide expansion to the Clean Air Act first passed into law in 1963. The 1970 amendments expanded the Clean Air Act’s power and required federal and state regulations for pollutants.

1972

The Clean Water Act, administered by the EPA, was passed in 1972. Its focuses are on preventing water pollution, improving wastewater treatment, and protecting the wetlands.

In the same year, the U.N. held their Conference on the Human Environment. After the 1949 U.N. Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources, this 1972 conference was one of the earliest global meetings to discuss the environment, conservation, and sustainability.

As a result of the conference, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) was formed. UNEP’s purpose to assist developing countries in creating sustainable and environmentally-friendly policies.

1987

In 1987, the U.N. published Our Common Future, a well-known paper also known as the Brundtland Report. The paper’s goal was to encourage countries to work together on sustainable development.

1993

The evolution of “green brands” begin. Businesses started using their environmental focus as a selling point. Fortune publishes a list of “Top 10 Companies in Environmental Management.”

2015

The U.N. General Assembly published their Sustainable Development Goals. The goals are set to be achieved by the year 2030. Several of the 17 goals, like “Goal #6: Clean Water and Sanitation” and “Goal #7: Affordable and Clean Energy” focus on environmental sustainability issues.


These successful entrepreneurs are change-makers creating everything from edible six-pack rings to sustainable textiles. You can learn from these change-makers directly by listening to our podcast, The Town Haul.

If you’re interested in boosting your own company’s sustainability initiatives, check out the RUBICONMethod.

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