Definition of Sustainability (2022)

We're going to define sustainability quite differently from normal definitions because the most popular definition in the world, the Brundtland definition of so called "sustainable development," is flawed. It's so flawed it should be tossed on the rubbish heap of history's biggest catastrophic mistakes.

First we'll give you our definition, followed by a look at why "sustainable development" is not just flawed. It was designed to deliberately lead problem solvers astray, because guess who "development" benefits most, even more than developing nations? Why large for-profit corporations, of course.

Contents

Our definition

Why the popular definition of sustainability is flawed

How the flawed Brundtland definition came to be

Getting the definition right by getting our priorities right

Our definition

Sustainability is the ability to continue a definedbehavior indefinitely.

For more practical detail the behavior you wish to continue indefinitelymust be defined. For example:

Environmental sustainability isthe ability to maintain rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely.

Economicsustainability is the ability to support a defined level of economic production indefinitely.

Socialsustainability is the ability of a social system,such as a country, to function at a defined level of social wellbeing indefinitely.

(Video) What is Sustainability

A more complete definition of sustainability is thus environmental, economic, and social sustainability. This forms the goal of The Three Pillars of Sustainability.

Why the popular definition of sustainability is flawed

The above definition of sustainability goes against the norm. The most popular definition of sustainability is that from the Brundtland Report of 1987, which said:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

The concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

The drawback to the Brundtland definition is it’s more inspirational than practical. It’s not precise and measurable, so no one can agree on what it means. This caused the definition to be plagued by controversy from the day it was published. The definition has also fallen into the trap of scope creep by including solving the global poverty problem. (This and the promise of development were included to bring undeveloped countries on board. Otherwise they were against solving what they perceived to be a problem created by developed countries.)

Should poverty really receive “overriding priority” over environmental sustainability? No, because if the environmental sustainability problem isn’t solved, then no other problem will matter due to catastrophic collapse. If the poverty problem isn’t solved, the world changes little. The poverty problem has existed for as long as Homo sapiens has. It’s nothing new. But the global environmental sustainability problem is new and threatens existence of our species. That’s why it deserves top priority.

Furthermore, “development” means economic growth to most nations, especially the developing ones. But that just makes the sustainability problem worse, since the economic system is already unsustainable. In theory, as Hermann Daly and others have suggested, “development” should mean both qualitative and quantitative growth. Qualitative growth (an increase in quality of life) can be very sustainable. But quantitative growth (economic growth) cannot be sustainable once it passes its limit, which it already has.

Meanwhile, "development" means sales growth for Corporatis profitis. Sales growth means profit growth. Short term growth in profits at the price of long term degradation of the environment is just fine with large for-profit corporations. After all, short term maximization of profits is their top goal. So the more corporations can push the Brundtland definition on the world, the higher their profits.

Unfortunately, that also means the lower the sustainability of society's actions.

Therefore the Brundtland definition is too flawed to use.

Here's the real surprise. Actually the Brundtland definition is not defining sustainability. It's defining sustainable development. What quietly happened long ago was the world's problem solvers redefined sustainability as sustainable development and then defined that. But sustainable development is a solution. It is not the problem to solve.

Thus the Brundtland definition is not only too flawed to use. It has defined the wrong problem to solve.

The right problem is the one in the definition at the top of this page.

How the flawed Brundtland definition came to be

The story of now the world's most popular definition of sustainability came to be (along with how it was flawed from the start) was told by Maurice Strong in his book Where on Earth Are We Going, 2000, pages 120 to 123. Speaking about the Stockholm Conference of 1972, of which he was secretary general, Maurice wrote that:

Definition of Sustainability (4)The biggest single threat to the conference was the ambivalence, even antipathy, that developing countries felt toward the whole issue of development.

From the beginning, developing countries had regarded the West’s concern with ‘the environment’ as just another fad of the industrialized countries; in their view pollution and environmental contamination were diseases of the rich, which could only divert attention and resources from their principal concerns: underdevelopment and poverty. They were understandably sensitive to the possibility that measures designed to protect the environment would impose new constraints on their development. Most of them would gladly exchange a little pollution for the benefits of economic growth. There was a growing movement to boycott the conference.

(Video) Sustainability: definition with simple natural science

I knew the conference would fail if we couldn’t persuade the developing countries to take part, and I knew they’d never agree to come unless their concerns were addressed. The draft conference agenda I’d inherited didn’t even attempt to do so. On the contrary, it was heavily skewed toward issues affecting the more developed countries—air and water pollution and deterioration of the urban environment. If I was to get anywhere, I’d have to radically remake the agenda—which had already been accepted by the Preparatory Committee.

I went away to do some serious thinking. Then, when I was clear in my own mind what approach we should take, and with the astute guidance of the committee’s Jamaican chairman, Keith Johnson, I called its members together for a special meeting.

I laid out for them my revised agenda. The key concept called for a redefinition and expansion of the concept of environment to link it directly to the economic development process and the concerns of the developing countries.

This was a key error. It linked the global environmental sustainability problem to the poverty problem and the desire of less developed countries to catch up with the rest. Maurice continued:

Well, it sounds good. Nice linkage. But it means what? I could see their skepticism.

The basic thesis, I said, is simple: environmental and economic priorities are intrinsically two sides of the same coin. Of course, there will be conflicts and trade-offs in particular cases, but I pointed out that it was, after all, the process of economic development that has an impact on the environment, both positively and negatively. Only through better management, therefore, can the basic goals of development be achieved—to improve the lives and prospects of people in environmental and social as well as economic terms. My new agenda recognized that national priorities were dependent on the stage of development currently attained and would therefore vary. The key was to insist that the needs of developing countries would best be served by treating the environment as an integral dimension of development, rather than as an impediment.

While Maurice and the other planners had the best of intentions, not treating the environment as an “impediment” means it need not be the highest priority. This was the precise point in history where the proper priority of the environment over all else was rationalized away in a politically expedient tactical maneuver. Once a bargain like this is made, it tends to be difficult or impossible to reverse.

The Stockholm Conference planners went on to redefine sustainability as sustainable development and to define that as mentioned earlier. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of expectations that may have tipped the problem into insolvability. If most of the world expects and even demands economic growth as a priority over solving the sustainability problem, then how can the sustainability problem possibly be solved?

The early environmental movement never asked these questions, because most environmentalists are altruists. They want to help others. The poor need lots of help. I too feel for their plight. But unless we get our priorities right from the start, what we've done here is create a problem that's impossible to solve.

For me, and I hope you too, the right priority is the one embodied in the definition at the top of this page.

Getting the definition right by getting our priorities right

There is a bird's nest of interdependencies between the three typesof sustainability mentioned at the top of this page. Social sustainability depends on economic sustainability,and vice versa. Social and economic sustainability depend on environmentalsustainability. To a much smaller extent, environmental sustainabilitydepends on economic and social sustainability. But the dominantdependency is that from a systemsthinking viewpoint, the humansystem is a dependent subsystem of the larger system it lives within: theenvironment. Therefore, of the three, environmental sustainabilitymust be society's top priority.

However, this priority is anything but clear in the standard definitionof sustainability. This originated in the Brundtland Report in1987, which defined sustainabilityas sustainabledevelopment,and sustainable development as "development that meets theneeds of the present without compromising the ability of futuregenerations to meet their own needs."

Here's what Herman Daly, a widely respected ecological economist,wrote in Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, in1996, page 1:

Definition of Sustainability (5)“Sustainable development is a term that everyone likes, butnobody is sure of what it means. The term rose to the prominenceof a mantra—or a shibboleth—following the 1987 publicationof the UN sponsored Brundtland Commission report, Our CommonFuture, which defined the term as development that meetsthe needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of futuregenerations to meet their own needs.

“While not vacuous by anymeans, this definition was sufficiently vague to allow for abroad consensus. Probably that was a good political strategyat the time—a consensus on a vague concept was better thandisagreement on a sharply defined one. By 1995, however, thisinitial vagueness is no longer a basis for consensus, but a breedingground for disagreement. Acceptance of a largely undefined termsets the stage for a situation where whoever can pin his or herdefinition on the term will automatically win a large politicalbattle for influence over out future.”

Which is just what happened. Daly defines sustainabledevelopment as "development without growth beyond environmentallimits." But economists like him were unable to get others to seethings this way. He describes the dire results on page 9:

One way to render any concept innocuous is to expand its meaningto include everything. By 1991 the phrase [sustainable development]had acquired such cachet that everything had to be sustainable,and the relatively clear notion of environmental sustainabilityof the economic subsystem was buried under 'helpful' extensionssuch as social sustainability, political sustainability, financialsustainability, cultural sustainability, and on and on. Any definitionthat excludes nothing is a worthless definition.

Which is why we define sustainability as the ability to continuea defined behavior indefinitely.

(Video) Definitions of Sustainability

Throughout this website, whenever we say just “sustainability,”we usually mean environmental sustainability, because if that isnot achieved, then none of the zillions of other types of sustainabilitymatter.

(1) The definition of sustainable development is from Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 43.

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Definition of Sustainability (9)

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

The principle of The Three Pillars of Sustainability says that for the complete sustainability problem to be solved all three pillars of sustainability must be sustainable. The three pillars are social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

The flaw in the Brundtland definition of sustainability arose in a short term effort to make the social pillar stronger as the world's top priority. However, that requires giving the environmental pillar a lower short term priority. The environmental sustainability problem requires aggressive widespread action now to avoid catastrophic consequences later. Thus the Brundtland definition has set the world on a course to disaster.

Why is this?

It's all due to the phenomenon of change resistance.

FAQs

What is a good definition of sustainability? ›

Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social well-being.

How do you answer a sustainability question? ›

We have all had to answer the “sustainability question” one way or another: How will the program be sustained after the grant ends? What is your plan for sustaining the project beyond the grant period? Describe the future of this program and how will you support it beyond the grant.

What was the first definition of sustainability? ›

Following this report, “the human ability to ensure that the current development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” was the first widely accepted definition of sustainable development.

How many definitions of sustainability are there? ›

While environmentalists may mean an ecological sustainability when they talk about sustainability, in a business context it can be used to point out an economic sustainability. In the academic literature, it's been estimated that there are over 300 definitions of sustainability and sustainable development.

What is a good example of sustainability? ›

Zero Waste As An Example Of Sustainability

The zero-waste movement is a lifestyle that encourages people to use all types of resources in a circular way, just like the natural world does.

Who gave the definition of sustainability? ›

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Today, there are almost 140 developing countries in the world seeking ways of meeting their development needs, but with the ...

Why do we need sustainability? ›

Sustainability is important for many reasons including: Environmental Quality – In order to have healthy communities, we need clean air, natural resources, and a nontoxic environment. Growth – UNTHSC's enrollment continues to grow, so we require more resources such as energy, water, and space.

How do you prepare for a sustainability interview? ›

To prepare, think about what inspired you to pursue this field of study and any memorable experiences from your classes or internships that made you certain you chose the right career path. Think of this question as a more targeted version of “tell me about yourself”.

How can I be more sustainable? ›

  1. Think twice before shopping.
  2. Make sure your big purchases have big environmental benefits.
  3. Go #PlasticFree.
  4. Boycott products that endanger wildlife.
  5. Pay attention to labels.
  6. Be water wise.
  7. Drive less, drive green.
  8. Green your home.

What is sustainability definition PDF? ›

Sustainability is “a process that helps create a vibrant economy and a high quality of life, while. respecting the need to sustain natural resources and protect the environment. It expresses the principle that future generations should live in a world that the present generation has enjoyed but not diminished.”

What are the 3 types of sustainability? ›

The figure at the top of this page suggests that there are three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection and social equity.

What are the 4 types of sustainability? ›

The term sustainability is broadly used to indicate programs, initiatives and actions aimed at the preservation of a particular resource. However, it actually refers to four distinct areas: human, social, economic and environmental – known as the four pillars of sustainability.

Which is the best definition of sustainability quizlet? ›

Which is the best definition of sustainability? Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

What is another word for sustainable? ›

What is another word for sustainable?
defensibletenable
maintainablestrong
supportableimpregnable
reliableviable
credibleplausible
25 more rows

What is the origin of the word sustainability? ›

The word “sustainability” is etymologically derived from the Latin word sustinere, to hold (from tenere –hold; keep; comprehend; represent; support) but it was regularly used in medieval French.

How can we be sustainable everyday? ›

Here are 15 easy ways to be more sustainable in everyday life:
  1. Eat more plants. The most sustainable diets are the vegan and vegetarian ones, while the least sustainable one is the omnivore diet. ...
  2. Save energy. ...
  3. Save water. ...
  4. Recycle. ...
  5. Get sustainable reusables. ...
  6. Drive less. ...
  7. Travel carbon efficiently. ...
  8. Boycott fast fashion.

What is one of the main sustainability benefits? ›

Sustainability maintains the health and biocapacity of the environment. Sustainability supports the well-being of individuals and communities. Sustainability promotes a better economy where there is little waste and pollution, fewer emissions, more jobs, and a better distribution of wealth.

How does sustainability help the environment? ›

Sustainability is the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources for the future. The United Nations defined sustainable development in the Brundtland Report as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

What are the 5 factors of sustainability? ›

According to Foundry, those six key factors are: optimize your current use of fossil fuels, eliminate waste, recycle, recover energy, save time, and reduce, or eliminate, pollution.

What is the meaning of sustainability in business? ›

In business, sustainability refers to doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole. Sustainability in business generally addresses two main categories: The effect business has on the environment. The effect business has on society.

What are sustainability issues? ›

Our increasing and inefficient use of resources has knock-on effects including climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, poor health and poverty. These issues are interlinked and in turn often exacerbate each other. The scale of the environmental/social challenge is enormous.

What will happen without sustainability? ›

We cannot maintain our quality of life or Earth's ecosystems unless we acknowledge and reduce the damage we do to the planet each day. If we don't learn to live sustainably, some of the effects will be: More landfills popping up everywhere. More animals going extinct due to deforestation and pollution.

Is sustainability possible? ›

New research shows that meeting global development and conservation goals together is indeed possible. But only if we make if we make significant changes in the ways we provide food, water, energy and other resources.

How important is sustainable development? ›

Importance of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development always encourages us to conserve and enhance our resources, by gradually changing the manners in which we develop and use technologies. All Countries should meet their basic needs of employment, food, energy, water, and sanitation.

Why are you passionate about sustainability? ›

The Importance of Sustainability

If we want to preserve the best of nature for generations to come, we need to get away from the culture of waste. For businesses, this often means a shift from competing on price alone, and looking at problems from a different angle.

Why do I want to work in sustainability? ›

Concentrating on sustainability makes the environment better which has the benefit of improving peoples' lives. One person can make a real difference and inspire others to do the right thing in the process. Learn that anything is possible through hard work, discipline and a desire to help the planet.

What is the meaning of sustainable life? ›

Sustainable living means understanding how our lifestyle choices impact the world around us and finding ways for everyone to live better and lighter.

What items are sustainable? ›

Zero Waste Shopping Gear
  • Reusable Bread Bag. Carry your bread home in style without any packaging waste. ...
  • Reusable Produce Bags. ...
  • Reusable Bulk Food Bags. ...
  • Reusable Shopping Bags. ...
  • Recycled Ocean Plastic Eyewear. ...
  • Side Bag Made From Recyled Plastic Drink Bottles. ...
  • Repurposed Billboard Vinyl Wallet. ...
  • Recycled Plastic Backpack.

What are sustainable use practices? ›

What are sustainable use practices? They are any materials that exist in nature and that are used by humans. They are the managed consumption of natural resources to prevent their depletion or the destruction of the environment.

What are the 3 types of sustainability? ›

The figure at the top of this page suggests that there are three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection and social equity.

What is sustainability and why is it important? ›

Sustainability is the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources for the future. The United Nations defined sustainable development in the Brundtland Report as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

What are the 4 types of sustainability? ›

The term sustainability is broadly used to indicate programs, initiatives and actions aimed at the preservation of a particular resource. However, it actually refers to four distinct areas: human, social, economic and environmental – known as the four pillars of sustainability.

How do you explain sustainability to a child? ›

Finding a sustainability definition for kids is important. Simply put, sustainability is about small changes we can make to help look after the planet. Making these changes helps protect animals, plants and our natural resources so that future generations will be able to enjoy them.

What are the 5 factors of sustainability? ›

According to Foundry, those six key factors are: optimize your current use of fossil fuels, eliminate waste, recycle, recover energy, save time, and reduce, or eliminate, pollution.

How can we achieve sustainability? ›

  1. Think twice before shopping.
  2. Make sure your big purchases have big environmental benefits.
  3. Go #PlasticFree.
  4. Boycott products that endanger wildlife.
  5. Pay attention to labels.
  6. Be water wise.
  7. Drive less, drive green.
  8. Green your home.

How do you write a sustainability statement? ›

How to Write a Sustainability Report
  1. Define Sustainability and Gather Information. ...
  2. Create Your Sustainability Report Outline. ...
  3. State the Company's Strategic Goals. ...
  4. List the Company's Sustainability Activities. ...
  5. Provide a Status Report. ...
  6. Summarize and Give Recommendations.
29 Apr 2019

Why is sustainability important now? ›

Sustainability improves the quality of our lives, protects our ecosystem and preserves natural resources for future generations. In the corporate world, sustainability is associated with an organization's holistic approach, taking into account everything, from manufacturing to logistics to customer service.

What are the benefits of sustainability? ›

Five Benefits of Embracing Sustainability and Green Manufacturing
  • Reduce Energy-Related Costs. Energy and water costs are a prime concern for manufacturers. ...
  • Attract New Customers and Increase Sales. ...
  • Tax Incentives. ...
  • Boost Workforce Morale and Innovations. ...
  • Societal Impact.
10 Sept 2015

What is one of the main sustainability benefits? ›

Sustainability maintains the health and biocapacity of the environment. Sustainability supports the well-being of individuals and communities. Sustainability promotes a better economy where there is little waste and pollution, fewer emissions, more jobs, and a better distribution of wealth.

What is another word for sustainable? ›

What is another word for sustainable?
defensibletenable
maintainablestrong
supportableimpregnable
reliableviable
credibleplausible
25 more rows

What are the key elements of sustainability? ›

Sustainability has three main pillars: economic, environmental, and social. These three pillars are informally referred to as people, planet, and profits.

What is sustainability definition PDF? ›

Sustainability is “a process that helps create a vibrant economy and a high quality of life, while. respecting the need to sustain natural resources and protect the environment. It expresses the principle that future generations should live in a world that the present generation has enjoyed but not diminished.”

What words are related to sustainability? ›

sustainable
  • defendable,
  • defensible,
  • justifiable,
  • maintainable,
  • supportable,
  • tenable.

How do you use the word sustainable in a sentence? ›

Sustainable in a Sentence

1. Because she knew her crazy work schedule was not sustainable, the overwhelmed mother started looking for a more suitable position. 2. The tent was made of sustainable materials that wouldn't ruin in extreme weather.

How do you develop sustainable development? ›

How can an individual contribute to sustainable development goals...
  1. Donate what you don't use.
  2. Waste less food and support local farmers.
  3. Get yourselves and your family vaccinated.
  4. Help educate children in your community.
  5. Empower women and girls around you and promote equality.
  6. Avoid wasting water.

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