The way businesses, governments and communities have dealt with environmental challenges has evolved markedly over time. Initial responses included attempts to disperse pollutants better to avoid high exposure and hence adverse impact on human health, for example by building higher stacks and locating pollution sources away from communities.
The next environmental management paradigm was pollution control through measures to capture, treat and detoxify pollutants and wastes after these had been created. These are often referred to as end-of-pipe technologies, and include for example effluent treatment plants, catalytic converters for car exhaust and waste incineration. Related to these are recycling and recovery, aimed at recovering something of use from a previously discarded waste: the same material, another useful product or energy. From the mid 1970s, leading businesses, communities and governments have started to realise that prevention is the desired environmental management strategy. It makes good environmental and business sense to minimise and where possible eliminate the generation of waste and emissions.
A number of different terms were introduced, including for example pollution prevention, waste minimisation, eco-efficiency and 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle). The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) brought key elements of different terms together under the term Cleaner Production (CP).
At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the international community committed itself to sustainable development. At its core, sustainable development is about development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Some have interpreted sustainability as ‘environmentalism dressed up for the 21st century’. However, sustainable development is primarily a development agenda to create wealth and jobs, in fair and equitable ways that protect the environment. In a business context, sustainable development is commonly captured as People, Planet and Profit – also known as the Triple Bottom Line. Commensurate with its own mandate, UNIDO coined the term Green Industry, to place industrial development in the context of the global sustainable development challenges.