Defining Sustainability: How much do you know?

Recently, Sustainability has gained clout through various movements calling for a reform in ways of doing business. It came about when people and businesses began to notice the negative effects that they had on the environment. It was further emphasized when human rights violations and increasing inequalities were uncovered. Over the past few decades, the level of production and consumption has exponentially increased to the point that our natural resources can no longer keep up and species of flora and fauna have gone extinct with our irresponsibility. This negligence paved the way for the uprising of several critical environmental issues such as Climate Change, deforestation, extinction, pollution, and so on. In order to alleviate these problems, governments and organizations have called on businesses and other entities to reconsider their business models and to incorporate sustainability initiatives into their operations. 

But what is Sustainability? 

Sustainability, to the general public, is the ability to meet present needs without hindering or compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This definition was published in the Our Common Future publication pioneered by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1987 for the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. (Our Common Future, 1987) 

Pillars of Sustainability 

The concept of Sustainability has three pillars, namely, Economic, Environmental, and Social. Other people know them as Profits, Planet, and People or the 3Ps. In a 2018 article published in the Harvard Business Review, John Elkington claimed that he coined the term “Triple Bottom Line” in 1994 to pertain to the three dimensions. (Elkington, 2018) 

Three Pillars of Sustainability

Diving deeper into them, we can easily determine the underlying elements of each one. Environmental Sustainability deals with the impacts on land, water, and atmosphere. Today, the most pressing environmental problem is Climate Change, which is brought on by rising temperatures caused by hyperactive production and rapid industrialization. 

Social Sustainability addresses the positive and negative impacts of activities on people. In a business, it means building and maintaining relationships with stakeholders, caring for employees, creating value for customers, and looking after local communities. A few examples of social problems are poverty, inequality, and weak policies and laws. Human rights is the cornerstone in corporate sustainability. It also includes issues affecting health and education. (UN Global Compact, n.d.) 

Economic Sustainability goes beyond sustained growth and profits for entities and helps us to consider the social and ecological impacts of economic activities.

 Sustainable Development 

The report focused on finding the balance between the world’s aspirations for a better life and limited natural resources, while addressing environmental degradation. Brundtland concluded that the answer was Sustainable Development, a form of long-term change in systems and structures that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It gives emphasis on societal progress and improving the quality of life or standard of living for all. (Our Common Future, 1987) 

Our Common Future a.k.a. The Brundtland Report

In the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development also known as the Earth Summit of 1992, development was defined as achieving a higher quality of life. It comprises economic development, social development, and environmental protection. It should be noted that they are interdependent and that they reinforce one another. (Earth Summit, 1992) 

The Brundtland Report put the concept of Sustainability on the map and paved the way to the widespread recognition that it has today. As businesses have a strong influence on consumers, use up the most resources, produce the most waste collectively, and are responsible for most workers, I believe that it is just fitting that they should be at the forefront leading the pack towards sustainability. 

As individuals, we can also do our part through responsible consumption and raising awareness. Education has always been a vital part in my life and it has been proven time and again that the reason why we find ourselves in such precarious positions is because there is a lack or poor quality of education. The more the people know, the more they will act because they will understand the urgency and efforts needed to save our planet and our people.  


Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development

Earth Summit – United Nations Conference on Environment and Development of 1992

Triple Bottom Line by John Elkington

United Nations Global Compact

Featured Photo by Lucas Allmann from Pexels

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