What Does Sustainable Mean?
Examining sustainability definitions and criteria that allow us to make informed choices and reduce our carbon footprint.
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What Does Sustainable Mean?
Examining sustainability definitions and criteria that allow us to make informed choices and reduce our carbon footprint.
Loading reading time...
What Does Sustainable Mean?
Examining sustainability definitions and criteria that allow us to make informed choices and reduce our carbon footprint.
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What does “sustainable” really mean? A look at the various definitions of sustainability

In today’s world, the term “sustainable” has become a buzzword, but what does sustainability mean?

At its core, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or uphold something over time. It entails striking a balance between social, economic, and environmental factors.

Imagine sustainability as a well-balanced ecosystem where all the elements work harmoniously. Like a thriving ecosystem requires planning and management, sustainability requires a holistic approach.

Examining the definitions and criteria allows us to make informed choices and reduce our carbon footprint. So, let’s dive into the world of sustainability and discover how we can create a more harmonious ecosystem for all.

The image highlights the concept that sustainability is about balancing the needs of the environment, society, and economy in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The image suggests that true sustainability requires a holistic approach that takes into account the interdependence of these three spheres, and that sustainable solutions must be both practical and equitable. The image serves as a reminder that sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, but also about creating a better world for all.

Origins of the term ‘sustainable’

Sustainability comes from the Latin word “sustinere,” which means maintaining, supporting, upholding, or enduring. In essence, it is the ability to keep going for a long time.

Further development of the term came with the concept of ‘sustainable development’ in the Brundtland Report in 1987. The report, also known as ‘Our Common Future’, defined sustainable development as focused on the future and present.

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Brundtland Report, 1987

From this point, sustainability transitioned from a vague concept to a focused principle. It is often broken down into three core aspects:

  1. Environmental
  2. Economic
  3. Social

These three aspects form the backbone of sustainability today. They are crucial in achieving a balanced, long-term approach to development.

  • For example, environmental sustainability involves minimising the human impact on ecosystems. It focuses on preserving biodiversity and promoting the efficient use of resources.
  • Economic sustainability entails ensuring stable economic growth. This requires creating opportunities for everyone, including disadvantaged communities.
  • Finally, social sustainability encompasses social equity, health, education, and quality of life.

Organisations, businesses, and governments have taken steps towards sustainable development goals and policies. These efforts address challenges from climate change and resource scarcity to social equality.

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability focuses on preserving and managing the planet’s natural resources. It encompasses various activities to promote harmony between human societies and the environment.

An image illustrating environmental sustainability. The visual shows a hand holding a small amount of sand with a growing plant emerging from it. The image highlights the concept that even small actions, such as planting a seed in a handful of soil, can contribute to environmental sustainability. The image suggests that environmental sustainability is about nurturing and protecting the natural world, and that we all have a role to play in creating a more sustainable future. The image serves as a reminder that by taking care of the environment, we are also taking care of ourselves and future generations.

Resource conservation

Resource efficiency is a crucial aspect of environmental sustainability. The aim is to conserve water, energy, and raw materials.

This can be achieved by reducing waste, recycling, and adopting energy-efficient technologies.

For example:

Biodiversity and ecosystem health

Preserving biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem health are crucial components of environmental sustainability. Biodiversity refers to the variety of life forms on Earth, including plants, animals, and microorganisms.

A healthy ecosystem is essential for the survival of all species. It is crucial in providing critical services such as clean air, water, and nutrient cycles.

Conservation efforts focus on

Pollution reduction

Pollution threatens ecosystems, human health, and economic well-being. Reduction efforts encompass air, water, soil, noise, and light pollution.

Effective measures to reduce pollution include

  • Implementing stricter emissions standards for industries
  • Promoting the use of clean and renewable energy sources
  • Encouraging individuals to adopt eco-friendly habits like recycling and using public transportation

Economic sustainability

Economic sustainability focuses on

  • Prudent and efficient use of resources
  • Promoting financial stability
  • Long-term economic growth
  • Fair distribution of wealth
An image illustrating economic sustainability. The visual shows a balance weighing scale, with a green earth symbol on one side and various economic symbols, such as dollar signs and graphs, on the other side. The image highlights the concept that economic sustainability is about achieving a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. The image suggests that economic sustainability requires us to consider the long-term impacts of economic decisions and to prioritize investments that benefit both the economy and the environment. The image serves as a reminder that economic sustainability is not just about making money, but also about creating a stable and prosperous future for all.

Financial stability

Financial stability ensures the efficient functioning of financial markets and economic growth agents.

Various factors contribute to financial stability, such as

  • Low and stable inflation rates,
  • A sound and robust banking system,
  • Effective financial regulation and supervision
  • Sustainable levels of public and private debt

Economic growth and development

Economic growth measures an economy’s capacity to produce more goods and services over time.

In contrast, economic development refers to improving living standards, including:

  • Income levels
  • Education
  • Health
  • Quality of life

Sustainable economic growth and development must be inclusive, equitable, and ecologically responsible.

Examples of sustainable economic growth and development include

  • Investment in renewable energy
  • Promoting energy efficiency
  • Developing sustainable infrastructure
  • Improving education and healthcare
  • Supporting innovation and technological advancements

Fair distribution of wealth

Fair distribution of wealth requires an equitable allocation of financial resources among communities.

It aims to reduce income inequalities and prevent extreme concentrations of wealth. Ignoring these imbalances can lead to social unrest and economic instability.

Some strategies to promote the fair distribution of wealth include

  • Progressive taxation
  • Social welfare programs
  • Investing in education
  • Promoting economic opportunities for disadvantaged groups

Social sustainability

Social sustainability focuses on community well-being, quality of life, and social equity.

Two people demonstrating social sustainability - one holding a globe and connecting with the other person, while the second person holds plants in their hand. The image represents the importance of social connections and environmental sustainability in creating a more sustainable world.

Equity and inclusion

Equity and inclusion are crucial for achieving social sustainability.

A fair and inclusive society ensures that all individuals have equal opportunities to

  • Access resources
  • Participate in decision-making processes
  • Enjoy the benefits of development

This requires addressing systemic issues and discrimination. Race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other discriminatory factors can create barriers to inclusion.

Cultural preservation

Preserving cultural heritage is an essential aspect of social sustainability. Culture encompasses the beliefs, values, customs, and traditions in a community’s unique identity.

A sustainable society

  • Fosters cultural diversity
  • Respects the distinctiveness of each cultural group
  • Supports activities that promote cultural preservation and understanding

Community resilience

Community resilience refers to coping with, adapting to, and recovering from external shocks. These shocks include natural disasters, economic crises, or social upheaval.

A socially sustainable society fosters community resilience by

  • Investing in strong social ties
  • Promoting self-sufficiency
  • Developing robust infrastructure and local economies


Well-being is a fundamental component of social sustainability. It encompasses multiple dimensions, including

  • Physical and mental health
  • Education and knowledge
  • Safety and security
  • Access to a supportive social network

Sustainable development aims to improve the well-being of all members of society. This ensures that individuals and communities can thrive and flourish.

Measuring and assessing sustainability

Indicators and metrics

Various measures provide a quantitative assessment of social, economic, and environmental performance. Some common indicators include:

  • Ecological footprint. Measures the total environmental impact of human activities. It measures the area necessary to support the use of resources and waste production.
  • Carbon footprint. Estimates the greenhouse gas emissions generated by an entity, activity, or product. It measures carbon dioxide equivalents of emissions.
  • Life cycle assessment (LCA). A comprehensive method that evaluates the environmental impacts of a product or service. It measures the entire lifecycle, from production to disposal.
  • Social sustainability metrics. Assesses the social dimensions of sustainability. Metrics could include working conditions, gender equality, and community engagement.

Certifications and standards

Various certifications serve as evidence of meeting specific sustainability criteria and benchmarks. They can be used by consumers, investors, and other stakeholders as a sign of trust and commitment to sustainable practices.

Some widely recognised certifications and standards include:

  • Fair Trade. Ensures producers receive fair prices for their products. It also promotes development opportunities and good working conditions for farmers and workers.
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Promotes responsible forest management and ensures products are sourced from sustainably managed forests.
  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). A sustainability reporting framework to communicate economic, environmental, and social performance.
  • ISO 14000 Series. A family of frameworks for organisations to manage their environmental responsibilities. For example, environmental management systems and audits.

These methods and tools can help measure and assess sustainability. However, organisations and individuals must continually evaluate and improve to achieve sustainable development.

Challenges in implementing sustainability

A significant implementation challenge is the need for a universally agreed-upon definition. This can make it difficult to identify and prioritise sustainable practices.

Another challenge arises from the need to balance short-term and long-term goals. Decision-makers often prioritise immediate financial returns over longer-term environmental and social benefits. This creates a barrier to implementing sustainable practices.

Additionally, the global nature of sustainability presents challenges when coordinating efforts and policies. For example, addressing climate change requires international cooperation and shared goals. Implementing effective policies can be challenging, given nations’ varying priorities, values, and resources.

Sustainable progress also considers intersections between social justice, environmental health, and economic stability. Prioritising one aspect of sustainability may sometimes conflict with the others. For example, promoting renewable energy could hinder the socio-economic status of oil-exporting nations.

What does sustainable mean to you?

In summary, “sustainable” encompasses many concepts and definitions. A common thread among these definitions is that expressed in ‘Our Common Future’. Here, the focus is on meeting present needs without impacting future generations.

Understanding and considering the three pillars of sustainable development is essential.

  1. Environmental protection
  2. Economic growth
  3. Social equity

These pillars ensure a holistic approach to sustainability, addressing modern societies’ interconnected challenges.

Various tools and frameworks, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, have been adopted by governments, businesses, and other stakeholders to promote and measure progress towards sustainability.

Yet, practical implementation requires innovative solutions and a collective, collaborative approach.

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Rob Boyle
Rob built Emission Index to collect and share data, trends and opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and expedite the energy transition.

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