Balancing or prioritising for sustainable development? Global goals and perceptions of sustainability integration among professionals

Led by Francesco S. Montesano

The effective integration of the environmental with the economic and social dimensions of sustainability will only succeed when the core problem perceptions of professionals in these fields adjust as well. Furthermore, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were launched by the UN in 2015 with the declared objective to advance integration across the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. Yet, while sustainability integration in general has been thoroughly researched, few studies have analysed the specific role of subjective understandings among professionals. This project seeks to bridge this gap by asking how professionals understand and operationalise sustainability integration. Which factors shape their perceptions and practices? And have the SDGs achieved their integration objectives?

Based on the statistical analysis of a large scale survey of over 500 professionals in a variety of fields and geographies, we show that sustainability integration is mostly perceived as a balance across all three sustainability dimensions rather than a hierarchy with the environment at its basis. However, perceptions also vary significantly across professional and geographical contexts. We also observed a strong correlation between the alignment of professionals with the concept of sustainability integration and the perceived impact of the SDGs. At the same time, however, greater engagement with the SDGs was also correlated with the prioritisation of specific dimensions of sustainability, which counters the official ambition of the SDGs.

This research therefore points at the need to better account for how individual circumstances affect processes of integration. It also highlights the tensions between the ambition of the SDGs for a balanced sustainability integration and their actual prioritisation of socio-economic goals.

This project resulted in two research articles, one published in Sustainable Development and one currently under review in Environmental Science and Policy.

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