Although the legal foundations for sustainability can be traced at least as far back as the 1300s, it is most often associated with five watershed moments in contemporary international environmental law. In 1972, the Stockholm Declaration, a major output of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, “represented a first taking stock of the global human impact on the environment, an attempt at forging a basic common outlook on how to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment.” Less than a decade later, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) published its World Conservation Strategy (WCS), which signaled “a fundamental policy change for the international conservation movement” and served as the first official document at the international level to mention sustainable development. The WCS argued that development which is sustainable “must take account of social and ecological factors, as well as economic ones; of the living and non-living resource base; and of the long term as well as the short term advantages and disadvantages of alternative actions.”
In 1983, the UN adopted the World Charter for Nature, which emphasized the need to use natural resources in a way that preserves “species and ecosystems for the benefit of future generations.” While the Charter is unenforceable as a matter of international law, an analysis of the document’s history finds that “most developing nations accept the underlying premise of the Charter: the global environment needs substantive and procedural protection from the adverse impacts of social and economic development.” As mentioned earlier, Our Common Future, the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, delivered a definition of the phrase “sustainable development” that is now widely accepted around the world. Finally, twenty years after the Stockholm Declaration, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the ‘Earth Summit’) produced the Rio Declaration, an international proclamation consisting of twenty-seven principles urging countries to “protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system.” While not binding on its signatories, the Rio Declaration recognized the inextricable link between environmental protection and development. Together, these instruments comprise the basis for sustainability in international environmental law.
In the two decades since the adoption of the Rio Declaration, sustainability has grown increasingly important within the world of business. In particular, the sustainability movement has prompted the private sector to shift away from the traditional profit-oriented bottom line approach to cost accounting to a more holistic “triple bottom line” perspective which encompasses economic, environmental, and social dimensions of business activity. The emphasis placed on measuring corporate performance in terms of people, planet, and profit has been manifested in various ways: the publication of corporate social responsibility reports, the founding of organizations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the establishment of international standards for environmental management like the ISO 14000 series, the development of green building guidelines under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the expansion of educational programs in sustainable business (i.e. “Green MBAs”).
To be sure, sustainability cannot be achieved unless businesses take action to address their environmental and social impacts. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project Global 500 Climate Change Report 2013, “ of the world’s 500 largest companies are responsible for nearly three quarters of the group’s 3.6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” However, the 50 largest emitters have actually increased their emissions since 2009. At the same time, Deloitte’s 2010 multi-industry survey of 48 executives “highlights a clear recognition…of the importance of sustainability to the future of their businesses.” Although these findings suggest a gap between practice and awareness among business leaders, “sustainability is increasingly being seen as a source of innovation and growth rather than simply cost reduction and risk management.” While the private sector is faced with the challenge of operating in a world affected by complex drivers such as climate change, deforestation, and population growth, the transition to a sustainable economy can be smoothed by sharing and adopting best practices, establishing partnerships with government and civil society, and improving the monitoring and measurement of business activities through the use of new metrics. Ultimately, economic, environmental, and social goals in business are not mutually exclusive. As Harvard Business School professor Forest L. Reinhardt argues regarding the relationship between corporate environmental policy and business strategy, “[t]he key to success may depend on how the challenges are approached.”
What kinds of challenges lie ahead for Sri Lanka in its pursuit of sustainable development? Waste management presents a serious issue. Of the 6,400 tons of waste produced each day in Sri Lanka, over half of the refuse winds up being “dumped in roadsides, water bodies, and low lands, causing serious health and environmental threats.” Heavy rains and extended droughts due to climate change may threaten the tea industry, “Sri Lanka’s main net foreign exchange earner and source of income for the majority of laborers.” Deforestation, one of Sri Lanka’s “major environmental problems,” has resulted in a 56% reduction in the country’s forest cover from the beginning of the 20th century up until 1994. Diminished forest cover can hold negative consequences for biodiversity, ecotourism, indigenous communities, and pollution mitigation. These are only a few of the concerns which Sri Lankans must confront.
Implementing a sustainability approach to Sri Lanka’s development can help address these pressing issues. The Greening Sri Lanka Hotels programme offers a case in point. The hotel industry in Sri Lanka consumes 4-5% of the country’s electricity, 50% of which is used to provide air conditioning. Examining hotel operations through the lens of sustainability, it was determined that the industry could reduce its energy consumption, waste production, and water use by 20%. By establishing guidelines for best practices, engaging in transparent data collection, and maintaining project monitoring, the programme is demonstrating that, in addition to reducing the sector’s negative impacts on the environment, “adopting good ‘green practices’ is not only vital for operational cost management and profitability enhancement, but also…a good marketing tool.”
Businesses throughout the developing world, especially in places like India, are embracing sustainability with the same enthusiasm and sophistication seen in the West. While this trend may surprise some, countries of all income levels face similar issues—depleting natural resources, rising energy costs, and an increasingly complex regulatory environment, to name a few. But a clean environment is not reserved for the rich only. The path to development does not need to be dirty; sustainability can be applied in any country or business, regardless of size or wealth. Sri Lanka stands at an important moment in its history. It has an uncommon opportunity to realize its potential by developing in a way that treats the environment not as a resource to be exploited, but as an ecosystem worth preserving for future generations. Sustainability can deliver Sri Lankans this promising future.
 Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Published as Annex to General Assembly document A/42/427, Development and International Co-operation: Environment August 2, 1987. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at <http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm>.
 Andrew D. Basiago, 1995, “Methods of Defining ‘Sustainability,’” Sustainable Development, 3, p. 109.
 Klaus Bosselmann, 2008, The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming Law and Governance, (Aldershot: Ashgate), p. 13.
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 John McCormick, 1986, “The Origins of the World Conservation Strategy,” Environmental Review: ER, 10(3), p. 177.
 World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), 1980. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/WCS-004.pdf>.
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 John Elkington, 2004, “Enter the Triple Bottom Line,” in Adrian Henriques and Julie Richardson (Eds.), The Triple Bottom Line: Does it All Add Up?, (London: Earthscan).
 Mike Hower, “10% of World’s Largest Companies Produce 73% of GHG,” Sustainable Brands, 13 Sep. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/communications/10-worlds-largest-companies-produce-73-ghg>.
 Deloitte, Sustainability in Business Today: A Cross-Industry View, 2010. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/IMOs/Corporate%20Responsibility%20and%20Sustainability/us_es_sustainability_exec_survey_060110.pdf>.
 KPMG International, Expect the Unexpected: Building Business Value in a Changing World, 2012. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.kpmg.com/Global/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/building-business-value.pdf>.
 See, for example, Dimitar Vlahov, “13 New Types of Data Analysis Every Business Should Consider,” Sustainable Brands, 10 Sep. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/new_metrics/13-new-types-data-analysis-every-business-should-consider>.
 Martha Lagace, “Going Green Makes Good Business Sense,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 15 Jul. 2002. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3015.html>.
 Shabiya Ali Ahlam, “Towards a Waste-Free Sri Lanka,” Daily FT, 5 Apr. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.ft.lk/2013/04/05/towards-a-waste-free-sri-lanka/>.
 M. A. Wijeratne, 1996, “Vulnerability of Sri Lanka Tea Production to Global Climate Change,” in Lin Erda et al. (Eds.), Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in Asia and the Pacific: Manila, Philippines, 15-19 January 1996, (Netherlands: Springer), pp. 87.
 National Forest Programmes Update 34, Food and Agriculture Organization, Dec. 2000. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x6900e/x6900e.pdf>.
 Ministry of Forestry, Sri Lanka, “Country Report- Sri Lanka,” Asia-Pacific Forestry Sector Outlook Study, Food and Agriculture Organization, Working Paper No. APFSOS/WP/16, Aug. 1997. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/003/W7708E/W7708E00.pdf>.
 “Project Brief,” Greening Sri Lanka Hotels, EU-Switch Asia. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.greeningsrilankahotels.org/index.php?page_cat=project-brief>.
 Green Practices of Sri Lankan Hotels, EU-Switch Asia Program – Greening Sri Lanka Hotels Project, Research Report No. 001, Jan. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.greeningsrilankahotels.org/userfiles/Research_Report_Final_2_.pdf>.
 George Wyeth, “Emerging Markets Much Quicker to Embrace, Integrate Sustainability into Business,” Sustainable Brands, 9 Sep. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/leadership/emerging-markets-much-quicker-embrace-integrate-sustainability-business?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=businessweekly&utm_campaign=sep9&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRonvqXBZKXonjHpfsX56eouXqaylMI%2F0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4AS8VjI%2BSLDwEYGJlv6SgFTrTBMbVxyLgOXxk%3D>.