The story of Sustainable Sweden is closely linked to the story of its founder, Torbjörn Lahti, and is in the continuation of previous projects and organizations. Here are some key-events that preceded the creation of SSA, as well as some that marked the evolution of SSA.
1983 : The Birth of the first Eco-municipality, Övertorneå
In 1983, Torbjörn Lahti was offered a job as project leader for the “Municipalities and the Future” project in Övertorneå. The city was then suffering economic crisis, depopulation and strong pessimism among its inhabitants. Inspired at first by a Finnish city that called itself an ecomunicipality, the members of the projects progressively developed that concept, and created circles of discussion in each village to find solutions in collaboration with the citizens. In the efforts toward sustainability, a lot of projects flourished in Övertorneå and deeply revitalized the city and its inhabitants – until nowadays.
1990 : “The Ecological Future Society” Conference
On January 18-19, a Conference, organized by Owe Thörnquist and Torbjörn Lahti, was held at Orsa to show the initiatives that existed in Sweden on the issues of sustainable development and ecovillages. The conference gathered 400 participants, which was much more than expected ! This event was an epochal for many participants who began to work on sustainability after that, especially municipalities and villages – that would become ecomunicipalities and ecovillages.
1990 : Creation of Esam
Torbjörn Lahti established Esam short before the conference in Orsa, quickly joined by Gunnar Brundin. The main business of the consulting company at first was the launch of pilot ecomunicipalities and environmental education. It played an active role in sustainable development in Sweden, often pre-empting public actors. The company then shifted to environmental management systems for the business sector. Today, the company gathers 19 consultants specialized in different aspects of sustainable development and has become a solid business.
1995 : Creation of SEKOM
In May 1995, the Swedish municipalities that had converted themselves into eco-municipalities since 1990 finally gathered in one and unique network : the National Association of Swedish Ecomunicipalities – also called Sekom for Sveriges Ekokommuner. Thus, they became independent from any government agency or other organization, and strengthened the concept of Eco-municipality as well as their collaboration toward sustainability. Today, 107 ecomunicipalities are part of this network.
1997 : The First Sustainable Sweden Tour
In 1997, after a series of lectures and seminars in the US, a Tour was organized around Sweden to show the accomplishments of the eco-municipalities to American participants who were very eager to learn more about sustainability in Sweden. The enthusiasm was surprisingly strong from both side – the Swedish eco-municipalities and the American participants -, this experience had to be renewed.
2000 : Creation of SSA
As a second trip – with American and Japanese participants – was planned for 2001, Torbjörn Lahti decided to create an organization dedicated to those Tours and to “building bridges” between Sweden and other countries, in order to spread the ideas, connect the interested actors and thus accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. So was born Sustainable Sweden Association !
1997 – 2008: Founding of Relationship with United States
The history of SSA’s relationship with the US goes back to 1997 when Torbjorn Lahti made his first study trip to the US. This first visit to the United States, and especially the second one in 1998, when Torbjorn Lahti had the opportunity to discover another side of the US in Wisconsin, was a source of inspiration. Indeed, one lesson learned is that these municipalities also play a coordinating role – not just a leading one – in the community, encouraging citizens to work together towards a common good. This relationship was strengthened in 2001 when a group of Americans attended a Sustainable Sweden Tour in Sweden, giving rise to a network of North Americans.
Between 2001 and 2008 many other trips to the US followed, to respond to invitations to participate in conferences and workshops, and also in 2004 to promote a book written by a participant of the 2001 Sustainable Sweden Tour – Sarah James – and Torbjorn Lahti. The book is titled, The Natural Step for communities: How cities and towns can change to sustainable practices, published by New Society Publishers. This book has been discussed in over fifty study circles in the United States, and today stands as a seminal work.
However, the financial crisis of 2008 put a strain on this relationship with the US, and it became clear that an international network was needed for the future to facilitate dialogue, which is one of the reasons why Ecomuna – a global Ecomunicipality Capacity Center – was created a few years later.
2001-2007 : Sustainable Robertsfors, the first Eco-Municipality 5.0
Robertsfors was an average little Swedish municipality when the project “Robertsfors Municipality – a pilot municipality for sustainable development” was launched, following a seminar at the Environment Forum in Västerbotten. With all the experience accumulated over the past twenty years, a new generation of Eco-municipality was gradually created : the Eco-municipality 5.0.
2008 : International Conference on Eco-municipalities
In May 2008, SEKOM, Natural Step and Sustainable Sweden organized the first International Conference on Eco-municipalities in Helsinborg, Sweden. This event gathered 100 participants from 14 countries, including two mayors from Ethiopia. This Conference, which was a success in spreading the concept of Eco-municipalities and connecting actors from around the world, marked also the starting point for the pilot-project of ecomunicipalities in Ethiopia.
2014 : Book tour
In 2014, Torbjorn Lahti published a book entitled “My journey with the Eco municipalities: How to change the world through local action” telling the story of the eco-municipality concept. In the same year a promotional tour was organised in the United States — one of the objectives being also to breathe new life into the American network. The tour took place mainly in the Midwest but also New England, New Jersey, and even Quebec in Canada. Several presentations and workshops were organised for the occasion, going into more depth on the content of the book.
2015/ 2020 : Ethiopia project
After 20 years of relationship between the ecomunicipality movement and Ethiopian municipality, in 2015, a first visit was organised to Ethiopia on the occasion of a regional eco-municipality conference in Tigrai. At that time, 8 municipalities were already in the process of becoming eco-municipalities according to the eco-municipality model developed by SSA.
In 2017, a project for these pilot eco-municipalities was developed, leading to workshops and networking with actors at different levels (municipalities, regions, universities and colleges). Before the official project, between 2015 and 2019, many activities were carried out: 2 national conferences, 3 regional conferences, 5 workshops in the municipalities, 3 SSA tours, continuous coordination with 14 municipalities, etc.
Multiple visits to Ethiopia followed, and in 2019, after securing funding from the Swedish Embassy and UN Habitat, the official project could start. This project can be defined as an integration between a concept built on:
- The science/experience brought by SSA with the eco-municipality 5.0 model
- The global/national development goals set by the Ethiopian government (sustainable cities and communities, poverty reduction, gender equality/empowerment of women, youth empowerment, quality of services/transparency, participatory processes)
- The local priorities selected by the municipalities (capacity building, urban greening, waste management, eco-tourism).
A five-year project plan was developed and expected to have many results at local, regional and national levels, such as awareness raising and capacity building, long-term sustainable plans, visible golden eggs, new jobs, new educational materials, and more. During the first year of the official project, 3 conferences, workshops in each of the ten participating municipalities, ongoing contact, and the development of tools (manual for example) were organized.
However, only one year after the start of the project, the pandemic, and then the civil war led to its cancellation. We stand in support of our friends and colleagues in Ethiopia, and will welcome chance in the future for reconnecting in our work together when conditions will allow.
2021 : Ecomuna pilot
The first idea of the need for an online international network appeared in 2012, when the first meetings around Ecomuna took place. However, the Ecomuna pilot project really began in 2021 after the global pandemic and the various lockdowns which brought a new culture of online relationships. Learn more about Ecomuna here.