Sustainability in the UK


What’s the challenge?

An increasing population and changing lifestyles are putting pressure on the earth’s valuable resources. Can business, politics and the creative industries help us create a sustainable future?

“Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”


Triple Bottom Line: The idea that it is important to consider social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability.


Between 2002 and 2012, global urban waste doubled from 680 million tons per year to more than 1.3 billion tons per year. By 2025 it is anticipated that the world’s urban population will be producing 2.2 billion tons per year. (Source:

The EU has set a target of 50% of household waste recycyled by 2020. In 2012 35% of municipal waste was recylced in Europe, an increase of 12% from 2001. The United Kingdom increased the share of municipal waste recycling from 12 to 39 % between 2001 and 2010.

The need for waste management is closely interlinked with the topic of climate change. Landfill is becoming less viable due to high costs, land-use issues and greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability in the UK

Sustainability Development Indicators (SDIs): The UK Government are working with DEFRA to create a list of indicators for UK sustainability. The indicators provide an overview of national progress towards a more sustainable economy, society and environment.

Recycle for London works in partnership with The Greater London Authority and Waste and Resources Action Programme with three principle objectives:

Reduction of waste
Reuse of certain waste items
Recycling – turning waste materials into new products

Landfill in Britain generates approximately 460,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Sustainable cities

For sustainability to be achieved within a city, a number of areas need to be tackled and improved:

Transport – cars are the largest Green house gas producer and thus improving fuel efficiency is the most important means of cutting emissions

Energy – changes in the national grid from coal to gas as well as renewable technologies

Water – reduction in demand and increased efficiency of appliances

Waste – reduction, re-use and recycling

The Circular Economy

Read about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation who are working towards a circular economy.

Case study: Curitiba, Brazil
In 2010, Curitiba was awarded the Global Sustainable City Award for its successful sustainable urban development. 70% of the city’s waste is recycled Highly effective Bus Rapid Transport system. The city uses 30% less fuel per capita than the average city in Brazil.

Panel discussion

21st Century Challenges held a panel discussion on 1 December 2010 to discuss the issue.

Sir Stuart Rose

Stuart was appointed Executive Chairman in June 2008. He is a non-executive director of Land Securities plc and Chairman of Business in the Community. Stuart began his career in retail at Marks & Spencer in 1972, before going on to the Burton Group in 1989, becoming Chief Executive of the Multiples Division in 1994. He left the Group following the demerger in 1997. Stuart was Chief Executive of Argos plc in 1998 and later became Chief Executive of Booker plc. Before re-joining Marks & Spencer as Chief Executive in 2004 he was Chief Executive of Arcadia Group plc from 2000 until 2002. Stuart was knighted in 2008 for services to the retail industry and corporate social responsibility.

“…we have to change, not a little, but radically. Not later, but now. Not with today’s business thinking but with a new set of skills.”

Sir Stuart Rose


Rt Hon Hilary Benn

Hilary is the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, formerly holding the position of Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A former President of Ealing Acton Constituency Labour Party, Hilary was elected to Ealing Borough Council in 1979, becoming the youngest ever Chair of the Education Committee.  He also served as Deputy Leader of the Council. He contested Ealing North in the 1983 and 1987 General Elections. Hilary worked for MSF as Head of Policy and Communications and represented the union on the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum. He was also Chair of the Management Committee of Unions 21 – the trade union think tank. Following Labour’s 1997 General Election victory, Hilary was appointed as special adviser to the Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, Secretary of State for Education and Employment. He developed the Union Learning Fund and was closely involved in the drafting of the Learning Age green paper.

In 1999, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Leeds Central. After serving as a minister at the Department for International Development and the Home Office, he was appointed to the Cabinet as the Secretary of State for International Development in 2003. He was the Prime Minister’s Africa Personal Representative and was responsible for the establishment of the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund. In 2007 he stood for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. From 2007 until the 2010 General Election, he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He played a leading role in putting the Climate Change Act and the Marine and Coastal Access Act on the statute book, and he established the South Downs National Park. Hilary Benn was voted by his fellow MPs as Minister of the Year in the 2006 and 2007 House Magazine Awards. He also won the Channel 4 Politicians’ Politician Award in 2006.

“We are now coming face to face with the consequences of our extraordinary ability to interact with the Earth; to make things, to create things, to build things, to change things” Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP

Green Thing

Andy Hobsbawm

Andy co-founded award-winning environmental movement Green Thing ( which inspires people to lead a greener life. Since 2007, people from 205 countries/territories have saved over one million tonnes of CO2. Green Thing has won “Best Green Digital” two years in a row at the prestigious UK Green Awards. In June 2010, Green Thing was awarded the annual prize at the Cinemambiente (Environmental Film Festival) in Turin for “Communicating The Kyoto Protocol”. Previously, Andy established the first international Internet agency in 1994 and was a founding director of leading British new media company Online Magic which merged with in 1997. As European MD then Chairman from 2003-2009, Andy helped guide and was a spokesperson for with his unique insight into the continual evolution of the interactive medium.

He was listed among the 100 top digital influencers in 2010 by Wired UK and has previously been recognized by industry professionals as one of most influential 100 individuals who have most contributed to the development and growth of e-commerce and the Internet in the UK over the last decade. In Campaign Magazine he has been voted New Media Innovator of the Year and named by industry peers as one of the most admired digital pioneers. Andy is also an honorary member of the Scientific Committee of AICA (International association for environmental communication) and a trustee of Jonathon Porritt’s sustainable development charity Forum for the Future. Currently Andy consults on digital media and serves as a non-executive director for various online businesses. In 2009 he co-founded ‘internet of things’ software company

“I think creativity is a critical ingredient in future sustainability, that can change green living from something the ought to do, into something they actually want to do. ” Andy Hobsbawm


The Eden project

Tim Smit, Chief Executive of the Eden Project
Today Tim Smit is a well renowned and successful business man, however he began as an archaeologist before taking an unexpected leap into the music business, working as both a song-writer and producer receiving seven platinum and gold discs.

In 1987 he moved to Cornwall during which he discovered the remains of gardens dating back to the 12th century. After two years of restoration, he opened the Lost Gardens of Heligan,  which became the subject of a television documentary and, with 350,000 visitors a year, one of the county’s top tourist attractions in Britian.Tim later co-founded the £80 million initiative, Eden Project in Cornwall, which opened to the public in 2001. He was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2002 New Years Honours List and awarded the Kilgerran Award of the Foundation for Science and Technology in 2003.

What is the Eden Project?The Eden Project attracts over 1 million visitors each yearThe Eden Project was constructed in a 160-year-old exhausted china clay quarry at Bodelva, near St. Austell, in Cornwall. It was established as one of the Landmark Millennium Projects to mark the year 2000 in the UK, opening to the public in March 2001. The Eden Project aims to promote the understanding and responsible management of the vital relationship between plants, people and resources, leading to a sustainable future for all.

The main complex consists of a series of connected geodesic domes (biomes), which were designed using 3D computer modelling. The designs were fed directly to a machine shop, where an automated production line computer controlled the cutting of the components. These were then numbered and delivered to the site flat packed, complete with assembly instructions. Most of the components were hexagons and triangles, with the odd pentagon to make all the pieces fit together into a dome.


Green GDP

Professor Tim Jackson,  Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of SurreyProfessor of Sustainable Development in the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) at the University of Surrey. His current research interests include consumer behaviour, sustainable energy systems, ecological economics and environmental philosophy.In the last twelve years he has pioneered the development of an ‘adjusted’ measure of economic growth – a ‘green GDP’ – for the UK. Since January 2003, Tim has been employed at CES under a research fellowship on the ‘social psychology’ of consumer behaviour.

Alex Steffen is cofounder and executive editor of Part blog and part eco-activist street team, serves as a clearinghouse of information and inspiration dedicated to increasing sustainability and livability into the 21st century, emphasizing solutions over problems.
Steffen was an environmental journalist in Seattle when he realized that the tools and methods for improving society’s ecological profile by and large already exist — they just need better PR. Steffen and friend Jamais Cascio co-founded to provide that PR, linking to and posting stories by dozens of contributors around the world on everything from consumer activism and sustainable farming to alternative energy and green building projects, to technology, globalization, and human rights.

World Changing, a sprawling 600-page collection of content from the website combined with new material, was published in 2006 to wide acclaim. Since then, cities across the globe have been exposed to new ideas for a more sustainable existence; in early 2010, following a series of talks by Steffen, Seattle adopted the official goal of transforming itself into the first carbon-neutral city by 2030.



Jane ni Dhulchaointigh is the Irish inventor and CEO of sugru, an innovative new product which Time magazine named alongside the iPad as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010.

Jane is passionate about promoting a culture of repair, creativity and resourcefulness, one which she feels has been lost in recent generations. She believes that Sugru can help tackle the spread of an increasingly throwaway mindset in society. Sugru, a play on the Irish word ‘súgradh’ meaning ‘play’, is a new silicone that’s like play-doh or modelling clay that you can form into whatever shape you like before it air cures into a tough, flexible, colourful silicone rubber.

Sugru is designed to stick to as many other materials as possible. It forms a strong bond to aluminium, steel, ceramics, glass, wood and other materials including some plastics. Its applications are therefore practically unlimited, with thousands of differnt ideas posted on online. An enthusiastic and fast-growing online community of thousands of Sugru users across the world are sharing their ideas to fix, repair and ‘hack’ things better. It’s about taking control and repairing, modifying and evolving the products we own so that they work longer, harder and better for us.

Jane was studying product design at the Royal College of Art in London in 2003, when she had a big idea. What if, instead of having to buy new things all the time, people could adapt and improve the things they already had to work better for them? From that initial spark of an idea, Jane has led a long and dedicated scientific development process involving a small team of material scientists, designers and business people to develop an entirely new material that could make the idea a reality. Jane and the Sugru team have not looked back since their first 1,000 packs sold out in just 6 hours in December 2009. Today the team has grown to 18 and is looking to build sugru to become a meaningful brand which can create a movement of repair, improvement and making.


Recommended reading

The denial dam: Sustainablility. What exactly is it? Is it the key concept of the age, or has it become meaningless?, Geographical Magazine, March 2015

Measuring sustainability across scales, Geography Directions, February 2015

Consumption, behavior change and sustainability, Geography Directions, June 2013

Opportunities for sustainability, Geography Directions, September 2010