The Nexus Between Intellectual Property and Sustainability 

The Nexus between Intellectual Property and Sustainability blog banner

The United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are touted as one of the most ambitious in world history. Member states will rely on intellectual property (IP) systems to protect the innovation and creativity required to end poverty and promote climate change. 

Only human imagination and applied creativity can spring up solutions to end world poverty, increase agricultural productivity and sustainability, reduce carbon emissions, and more. But what is the connection between intellectual property and sustainability? 

What Are Intellectual Property Rights? 

Intellectual property rights refer to the ownership status and exclusive rights that accrue to e.g. its creators or inventors. These rights allow them to reap the benefits of their work in terms of commercial proceeds or increased social status.   

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) regards intellectual property as any “creation of the mind.” These include artistic and literary works, stage or brand names, symbols, designs, and more. 

The laws of various countries protect these intellectual properties through e.g. copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Even when a creator or inventor’s right clashes with the public interest, these laws strike a much-needed middle ground for both to flourish. 

What is Sustainability?

The principle of sustainability is simple— to meet the needs of the present generation without adversely affecting the future. It involves strategies adopted to maintain a certain status over time. 

In the business world and as it relates to government policies, sustainability aims to discourage the exhaustion of natural or other resources so that they can last for a long time. Sustainability presumes that ecological, economic, and human resources are limited and must be used sparingly with a long-term focus. 

It seeks to strike a balance between economic growth, social welfare, and care for the environment. The concept is typically spread through three sub-areas— economic, social, and environmental sustainability. 

Economic sustainability refers to an organization’s ability to conserve its resources and still make a profit. For example, many companies now promote recycling, renewable energy, and other cost-saving concepts.  

Environmental sustainability is concerned with managing nature’s resources without stalling economic progress. Some environmental sustainability strategies include the reduced use of plastics, energy-conserving transport systems, water and energy savings, and recycling paper.  

Stockholm, a Swedish city, is at the forefront of environmental sustainability practices. The city has managed to strike a balance between protecting the environment and growing the economy by making considerable investments in sustainable infrastructures.  As a result, they have low carbon emissions and good air and pollution levels. 

Finally, social sustainability aims to improve individuals’ welfare and living conditions through better healthcare, housing, and other policies. 

In the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the US committed to promoting an environment where people and natural elements can exist without depleting each other. Since the enactment of this act, public interest in sustainability has grown.  

Sustainability should be an integral part of every valuable IP strategy, and it is a primary interest for many modern organizations. It has formed the theme of the United Nation’s SDGs with 17 goals and a target year of 2030.  

imagie showing a green bulding with every aspect of sustainability

How Intellectual Property Aids Sustainability

It is established that intellectual property touches different aspects of a country’s economic growth and social development. It’s in the healthcare sector, technological industries, education, and more. But how does it promote sustainability? Here’s how:

1. Disclosure of Patents Aid Sustainable Inventions

A key principle of patents is their disclosure. This means that even if the owner has an exclusive right over their invention and can limit its use, they must disclose their invention to the public. 

This makes upcoming researchers and scientists aware of the invention or patented knowledge, and they can then draw inspiration from it to create other sustainable inventions.

Further, the inventor can use their exclusive rights to spread the innovation, bridging the knowledge gap. In 1973, two scientists, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer invented a new genetic engineering technique involving transplanting genes between living organisms. 

They patented their invention and made the noble decision to offer the license to any interested person at a reasonable cost. The scientists also did not grant exclusive licenses to one person but allowed the free use of their invention for non-profit research purposes. 

It was a win-win situation, as they received sufficient royalties, and the spread of their invention caused a revolution in medical technology. Since then, the world has seen a growth of sustainable technological inventions inspired by their gene transplant technique. 

Some of these are the invention of insulin, growth hormones, and the Hepatitis B vaccine. Since then, there has been immense growth in the biotech industry. 

Future inventors with innovations that aid sustainable practices can follow the trend set by Boyer and Cohen. Intellectual property and its accruing rights allow owner to disseminate their inventions and speed up their reliance on sustainable processes. 

2. The TRIPS Agreement Aids Sustainability

Intellectual property rights through the TRIPS agreement promote sustainability. TRIPS is short for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.   

Its coverage extends to intellectual property rights like patents, trademarks, and industrial designs. Certain sections of the agreement promote sustainability and use intellectual property rights as a channel. 

For example, under this agreement, any invention that aims to protect life and health or the environment may not enjoy patent protection. One can interpret this to mean inventions that promote sustainable development will not have exclusive ownership rights.  

Some other sections in the agreement recommend sharing technological advancements with developing countries. This is a nod to knowledge sharing, one of the tenets of sustainability.  

However, the TRIPS agreement is largely not enforceable. Although the member-states acknowledge the agreement, they may decide to or not to implement the agreement.  

On the one hand, this lack of enforceability looks like a downside to the agreement, making a mockery of its provisions. But on the flip side, one may see it as a motivation for the member-states to draft their respective laws based on these provisions, and they can back their laws with sanctions. 

3. Geographical Indicators Can Boost Sustainability

Geographical Indicators (GIs) are another way for intellectual property rights to support sustainability efforts. A geographical indicator is a sign that appears on products manufactured in a particular location and has qualities to prove that it comes from that place. 

For example, the drink “champagne” gets its name from Champagne, a region in France from which it originates. As a result, the only bottles allowed to have the name “champagne” on their label are those bottled within a 100-mile radius of the French town. Irish whiskey, Tequila, and Swiss watches are some other examples of this geographical indicators principle. 

These Geographical Indicators aim to limit third-party use from other areas of the world, where the third-party’s products are potenitally not up to the required standard, due to e.g. different local conditions. As a collective intellectual property right, geographical indicators differ from IP rights like copyright and patent. 

For one, an individual cannot have exclusive rights to it; everyone in that geographical region can enjoy GI protection. 

In this context, geographical indicators can improve the quality of life and social sustainability in rural areas. For one, the GI intellectual property rights lie with local manufacturers who get to enjoy any value resulting from it.  

This can translate to better job opportunities for people in that region and higher income for local manufacturers. With social sustainability comes improvement in other sustainability domains. 

For example, in Vietnam, geographical indicators covering products like the Tan Cuong Tea have improved employment opportunities in the region.  Overall, it has reduced environmental pollution in urban areas, as the locals have no incentives to migrate to those cities.  

So, in some way, intellectual property led to social, economic, and environmental sustainability in one ripple effect. 

However, this can go sideways if not controlled. Since geographical indicators over an area translate to increased production and other economic activities, the degradation and depletion of natural resources is a scary possibility. 

Therefore, well-formed policies should accompany these geographic indicators to strike a balance.  


Intellectual property has impacted different spheres of knowledge, from entertainment to education and technology. Its scope has expanded over the years to cover sustainability and sustainable practices. Through innovative solutions like IamIP, it’s easier to access patents globally while better understanding the connection between intellectual property rights and sustainability benefits. 

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