Before the widespread use of the term sustainable industries, the terms sustainable economy and sustainable development were prevalent. Their popularization started with the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in 1992. The conference was prompted by the report Our Common Future (1987, World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission), which called for strategies to strengthen efforts to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development. A series of seven UN conferences followed on environment and development. They coined the most widely used definition of sustainable development as,
- development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
- The concept of "needs", in particular the essential needs of the world`s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
- The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment ability to meet present and future needs (Brundtland)".
Sustainable development, according to one definition, demands that we seek ways of living, working and being that enable all people of the world to lead healthy, fulfilling, and economically secure lives without destroying the environment and without endangering the future welfare of people and the planet.
The precise meaning of sustainable development has been widely debated. For example, two years after the Brundtland Commission's Report popularised the term, over 140 definitions of sustainable development had been catalogued.
The United Nations Environment Programme position is:
- The intensified and unsustainable demand for land, water marine and coastal resources resulting from the expansion of agriculture and uncontrolled urbanisation lead to increased degradation of natural ecosystems and erode the life supporting systems that uphold human civilisation. Caring for natural resources and promoting their sustainable use is an essential response of the world community to ensure its own survival and well being. (source: Sustainable Management and Use of Natural Resources)
Many people reject the term sustainable development as an overall term in favor of sustainability, and reserve sustainable development only for specific development activities such as energy development: the former being the process by which we can achieve the latter.
Sustainable development is one of the issues addressed by international environmental law.