Sustainable Development 101

What Is Sustainable Development?

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These goals serve as a framework for government and the private sector to guide and measure sustainable development as we move toward 2030.

The 17 goals are an ambitious, international call to action to eliminate poverty, safeguard the planet, and improve life — in a sustainable way — for current and future generations. In addition, these goals aim to provide peace and prosperity for everyone around the globe. No small task!

The most concise and easy to remember definition of sustainable development was first coined in The Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A Mini History of Sustainable Development

The United Nations took a survey of 193 governments.  At first, there was a list of 300 proposed goals to address the “triple bottom line.” Simply put, they built in priorities for prosperity (economic), people (social), and planet (environmental) goals.   It took these representatives over three years to boil this list down to 17 sustainable development goals. Statisticians created 169 targets and 230 indicators to measure progress.  More than 700 organizations around the world committed to helping the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Each of the 17 SDGs to be achieved by 2030 apply to all countries around the world. However, priorities are expected to differ from country to country. For example, the U.S. already has reasonable access to quality education and healthcare. However, inequalities are growing. The U.S. has a coastal economy, which offers trade benefits, but also the risks of rising sea levels.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs deserves great credit for moving the SDGs forward. Professor Sachs is an economist and public policy analyst. He has served as special advisor to the United Nations as they moved forward to create the SDGs. Professor Sachs has written several books and received many awards.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, photo by

Keeping Tabs on SDG Progress

Would you like to know how the world as a whole and individual countries are doing in reaching their goals? Visit the SDG Tracker.

For example, SDG Indicator 12.1.1 covers sustainable consumption and production. The goal for SDG Indicator 12.1 is to implement a 10-year sustainable consumption and production framework with all all countries taking action by 2030. Review the progress for this indicator:

The SDG Tracker provides data on all indicators from the Our World in Data database, using statistics from the UN and other international organizations. Here is the full list of definitions.

Why Should I Care about the Sustainable Development Goals?

Wu Hongbo, explained, “If all of the world’s people lived like people in the developed countries do, then we would need three or four different globes to support the demand in terms of natural resources.” This is truly a global, shared agenda. Reaching the goals requires extreme cooperation and action by governments, businesses, and civil society. We can do our part by educating ourselves and each other, and taking part in international discourse and accountability.

For a FREE, self-paced course on sustainable development, visit