Earth Overshoot Day: Closing the Loop and Moving the Date Together

“In less than eight months, humanity has exhausted Earth’s budget for the year.” I was concerned to read this on the Global Footprint Network’s homepage few weeks ago, when the global Earth Overshoot Day 2021 was announced to land on July 29. This means that for the rest of the year, we are running on a deficit: our demand for ecological resources and services is exceeding what Earth can regenerate.

What unsettles me most is that we have completely re-bounced to the pre-pandemic overshoot. When I was reflecting on Earth Overshoot Day on August 22 last year, I was hopeful that we had turned around the devastating trend of reaching our planet’s natural limits earlier and earlier since 1970. It had been the first time in years that we had pushed Earth Overshoot Day to a later date. But now we have almost returned to the level of 2019, with an estimated 6.6% increase of our global ecological footprint in 2021 compared to 2020.

Have we not learned our lessons? Are we not managing to leverage the small window of opportunity to ensure a sustainable recovery?

The conversation around sustainability did actually accelerate in the last 18 months, quite drastically even. Political will has been converging with true economic business cases. Ambitious sustainability commitments were abundantly announced. For businesses it is no longer a question of “if,” but of “how” and “how fast” — and the latter seem to be the issue. The many bold targets from diversity to net-zero remain to be executed.

It’s clear that we need to move from goal setting to action and do so faster.

Being a stubborn optimist, I never give up taking note of examples that prove progress in the right direction. I was intrigued when reading about Amsterdam and Brussels being among the first cities to implement Doughnut Economics amid the COVID-19 crisis. The model was introduced by economist Kate Raworth, who describes it as follows:

“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essential needs (from food and housing to health care and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.”

Having been inspired by Raworth’s doughnut, as well as by related frameworks such as Johan Rockström’s concept of the planetary boundaries, we have also evolved SAP’s objective over time to “creating positive economic, social, and environmental impact within the planetary boundaries.” We know it’s still directional, but are passionately working together with our employees, partners, suppliers, governments, and NGOs toward bringing this to life.

At our first SAP Sustainability Summit in April this year, we heard inspiring examples of how this has already been put into practice along with future solutions yet to be implemented. While the focus was on holistic steering and reporting, climate action,and circular economy, it is the circular economy that especially comes to mind today.

Earth Overshoot Day painfully visualizes that our current economy is largely based on a “take-make-waste” model — the linear economy, or as Raworth puts it so vividly the “industrial caterpillar, ingesting food at one end, chewing it through, and excreting the waste out of the other end.” The key is to move away from this degenerative approach toward a regenerative one based on continual (re)use of resources in a closed-loop system, minimized use of resource inputs, and reduction of waste, pollution, and carbon emissions. This only works through collaboration across networks, which is a key motivation for SAP to create new business communities able to improve business outcomes, better navigate changing economic and geopolitical conditions, and enhance sustainability contributions.

The experiences, advancements, and challenges shared during the SAP Sustainability Summit by both large corporations — including Mitsubishi, adidas, H&M, Nestle, Dow, Eastman, Audi, and BASF — as well as startups such as Queen of Raw, Topolytics, Rheaply, Greentoken, and Re-loop, make me hopeful that we have the foundation on which to build. Partnerships that were equally discussed at the event — as with Accenture, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, or the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastics Action Partnership —  should provide the springboard to accelerate and scale.

SAP is committed to play its part in driving the transition toward an inclusive, circular, and zero-waste economy — be it through the launch of new sustainability solutions, supporting alliances and pledges like the WWF’s OneSource coalition and Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Call to Action encouraging government actions against plastic wast,e or by offering a free online course to increase the awareness of benefits and best practices.

I invite everyone to join in and act now. The Global Footprint Network has a #MoveTheDate movement to chip away at our own ecological footprint, both collectively and individually. Let’s make it happen together!


Daniel Schmid is chief sustainability officer at SAP.