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Unit information: Legal Perspectives on Sustainability in 2016/17

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Unit name Legal Perspectives on Sustainability
Unit code LAWDM0127
Credit points 30
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Dr. Pieraccini
Open unit status Not open




School/department University of Bristol Law School
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


The aim of this unit is to bring together the diverse expertise of scholars researching and writing in the field of sustainability and sustainable development and to provide a critical exploration of the subject from a variety of legal perspectives. Our objective is to consider how international, European and domestic laws operate to foster or obstruct ‘sustainability’. In the unit we wish to consider a) the multiple (and contested) definitions of sustainability produced by philosophical and ethical considerations and policy documents and how they are internalised or re-shaped in a variety of legal fields; b) how sustainability can be defined so as to make sense in a variety of legal contexts, the international development of the meaning of sustainability culminating in the current transition to ‘sustainable development goals’; c) the challenges of translating these objectives into concrete multilevel legal frameworks and specific legal principles, for example in particular through various participatory mechanisms; and d) the relationship between sustainability and justice considerations as played out in law. In so doing, we will examine such subjects as environmental law, poverty alleviation including food security, labour standards, corporate governance and intellectual property, considering both theoretical perspectives and regulatory instruments.
This unit will give students an opportunity to study key aspects of the QAA sustainability education guidance as mapped into the study of law.

The core topics will be:

  1. A history of ‘sustainable development or sustainability’
  2. Philosophies underlying sustainability: their relevance to the ‘four pillars’
  3. Governance and sustainability: participatory problems

Then in any one year we will deliver seminars from the following list of topics:

  1. Sustainability for environmental protection
  2. Sustainability and the commons
  3. Sustainability and land use
  4. Sustainability for food security
  5. Sustainability for labour standards
  6. Sustainability reporting for enterprises
  7. Sustainability and social enterprise
  8. Sustainability for intellectual property

Intended learning outcomes

Students will:

  • be expected to critically engage with the ideas of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’.
  • gain knowledge regarding the historical evolution of these ideas and their manifestation at international, regional and domestic levels.
  • be able to evaluate the adequacy of legal approaches with regard to various philosophical understandings of the justifications for sustainability as an objective.
  • be aware of debates regarding participation in the setting of objectives relating to all four ‘pillars’ as reflected in the UN ‘sustainable development goals’.
  • gain an appreciation of the manifestation of principles associated with sustainability (or otherwise) in relation to a variety of topics encompassing the four pillars.

Teaching details

The contact hours for this unit will be 30 hours. This will usually take the form of: 8 lectures, 10 two-hour seminars and 2 assessment preparation and feedback sessions.

Assessment Details

Summative: a 2000 word essay (33%) will assess the candidate's ability to research a topic within the scope of this unit. The remaining Intended Learning Outcomes will be assessed in a 3 hour written examination (67%). Both assessments will assess all of the Intended Learning Outcomes for this unit in the context of topics selected by the examiners.

Formative: students should do one formative assessment (this will usually be 1 x 1500 word essay).

Reading and References

  • Adams, Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in the Third World (Routledge 2009, 3rd ed.)
  • Adams, Understanding integrated reporting: the concise guide to integrated thinking and the future of corporate reporting (Do Sustainability, 2015).
  • Bossleman, The Principle of Sustainability (Ashgate, 2008)
  • Eccles and Krzus, One report: Integrated reporting for a sustainable strategy (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).
  • Elliott, An Introduction to Sustainable Development (Routledge, 2013, 4th ed)
  • Novitz and Mangan (eds), The Role of Labour Standards in Development: From Theory to Sustainable Practice (OUP, 2011)
  • Rodgers, Straughton, Wincheser and Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (Earthscan, 2011).
  • Sjafjell and Richardson (eds), Company Law and Sustainability: Legal Barriers and Opportunities (CUP, 2015)
  • Sterling et al (eds), The Sustainable University - Process and Prospects (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013)