Starting a Sustainability Journey

SUSTAINABILITY used to have different meanings at different times to different people but gained a more universally common and acceptable definition over time.

The term “sustainability” is derived from the Latin word sustinere, which translates “to sustain” and means to maintain, support, uphold, or endure, connoting the ability to continue over a long period of time.

The modern use of the term, however, was strongly influenced by the 1983 United Nations (UN) Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, in its 1987 report titled “Our Common Future.”

In the 4th Annual Sustainability Summit of my organization, the Global Compact Network Philippines (GCNP), three UN Global Compact Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Pioneers gave the following advice on how to start your sustainability journey, which is applicable to all organizations, including associations:

1. Start small and “where you are.” From the association context in the Philippines, I can cite two examples. First is the “Green Project” of the Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) that advocates for energy efficiency and sustainable packaging within its membership, understandably because its members consist of large malls as well as small and medium retail stores. The second is the initiatives of the Philippine Franchise Association (PFA) that promote food waste reduction and training programs related to the SDGs with emphasis on women and youth demographics.

2. Use the SDGs as a framework. While starting small and focusing on areas where they have the experience and influence, both PRA and PFA use the 17 SDGs as a framework and select from them where they can have more impact. For instance, both cover Goal 13 (climate action), as mentioned above, and Goal 17 (partnership for the goals) where the two associations use their broad networks to collaborate with other same-minded organizations in the pursuit of their sustainable objectives.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel. It also helps that associations adopt sustainability initiatives that have already worked and have a proven track record. Creating awareness, conducting briefings and capacity-building programs, peer-to-peer best practice and solution sharing, as well as communicating via simple messaging and multi-channel application, are some approaches that have been effective. Availing of collaboration and complementation of competence opportunities can also make a difference.

4. Involve the youth and use their energy. One dividend that the current world demographics can harness, in this case for advancing sustainability, is involving the youth in sustainability actions. From the experience of associations worldwide, the millennials have been “association joiners” contrary to anecdotal data. They aspire to contribute to the cause of the association and, at the same time, expect being on the table and be recognized for their efforts.

5. Be agile, adapt, and make changes going forward. One of the lessons learned during the pandemic is being able to be flexible and to institute changes as the need arises. In terms of sustainability actions, associations need to listen to their members and undertake programs which their members are keen and able to contribute. In the case of GCNP, its “Private Sector Champions” initiative has 10 focus areas to be scaled up in ten years to help micro, small and medium enterprises recover from the pandemic and be more resilient in their business sustainability practices.

Octavio Peralta is currently the executive director of the UN Global Compact Network Philippines and founder and volunteer CEO of the Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives, the “association of associations.” E-mail:


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