The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a 15-year plan for advancing sustainable development globally. Hanken has developed a MOOC, an online course open for anyone, about the SDGs and how we can work to achieve them.

The course starts on the social learning platform FutureLearn on 31 August. This text is a part of the MOOC and gives a sneak peak of some of the questions we will be tackling on the course. As part of learning about how the SDGs address the environmental dimension of sustainability, we reflect on what actions are needed for environmental sustainability:

The SDGs set targets for environmental sustainability, but they are less clear on how we need to change our societies to reach these targets. This gives much room for different actors to interpret the goals differently and to propose alternative ways of reaching them. In the following, we will reflect on whether the most often proposed ways of achieving environmental sustainability are likely to reach the targets of the SDGs, or whether we should consider other alternatives.

People living in developed countries have, on average, a much larger impact on the environment compared to people living in developing countries. For this reason, the pressure to reduce the environmental impact of human activities is particularly big for developed countries. Our focus in the following will be mainly these countries, which have high levels of industrial production and consumption.

Broadly, two different strategies for reducing ecological footprints can be distinguished. First, we can attempt to reduce our ecological footprint by decreasing the environmental impact of products and services. This can be done by improving the material and energy efficiency of production, that is, using less natural resources and energy or generating less waste and pollution for each product or service produced.

For example, we can replace fossil fuels in energy production with renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, thus reducing the CO2 emissions of the energy production. It is also possible to decrease the environmental impact of products and services through technological innovations. For example, electric cars have lower CO2 emissions than cars that run on gasoline.

Decreasing the environmental impact of products and services is the most commonly used strategy to reduce ecological footprints. Its advantage is that it does not require more fundamental changes to our lifestyles or societies. For the most part, we can keep living as before, simply choosing the greener alternative.

However, despite all our efforts to improve the efficiency of production, environmental degradation has continued. This has prompted some to argue that our current strategies for reducing our ecological footprints are not enough to achieve environmental sustainability. An alternative strategy to complement current action has been suggested: for people that currently enjoy lifestyles with high levels of consumption to reduce the amount they consume. By decreasing how much we produce and consume, we would reduce our ecological footprints.

This would require a more fundamental change to our lifestyles. Instead of merely switching to greener products, we would need to change our consumption habits. For example, we use a lot of energy to heat and cool the houses we live in. We could save a lot of energy by living in smaller houses that require less energy to heat and cool. Another example is private car use. Instead of switching to electric cars, we could reduce how much we use private cars for mobility and instead use public transport, bicycle or walk.

Since the need to reduce ecological footprints is so large, particularly in developed countries, we might need to combine these two strategies if we want to achieve environmental sustainability.

If you want to learn more about the SDGs and how we can work to achieve them, the MOOC “Organising for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” starts on FutureLearn on 31 August – sign up here:

Maria Sandberg
Doctoral student


Maria Sandberg is a PhD student at Hanken. Her dissertation analyses ways to reduce consumption levels in high-consuming societies in response to environmental degradation. She is one of the lead educators of the MOOC “Organising for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”.