Sustainability- What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why It’s Important & Definitions

what is sustainability and why its important
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What Is Sustainability?

Sustainability is the indefinite action of making human consumption and waste generation such that it does not exceed the Earth’s ability to restore natural resources and process waste so that future generations have an equal, or ideally better, environment than previous generations. By default, this ensures a sustainable society, and therefore a sustainable economy.


Sustainability is also the understanding that there are limits to human growth in a world where resources (healthy foods, clean water, land) are finite. Consuming natural resources faster than Earth’s ability to replenish them will inevitability lead to environmental scarcity. Our growth paradigm will result in resource scarcity, resulting in economic collapse, leading to people not getting their basic needs met.


As stated, there are limits to growth, but we are currently operating under a perpetual growth economy. This sets us up for failure. With peak oil approaching and possibly already here, changes will be made one way or another. Thus, the core of sustainability is reducing economic and human population growth (degrowth).

“To prosper without growth we have to establish a radically different economic system and way of living.” – Kallis 2018

Other Definitions

There are many definitions of sustainability which is confusing. Below I have included some of these definitions:

“Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


  1. “The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”

  2. “Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”

    Lexico Dictionary


“Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to coexist.” Wikipedia


What Sustainability is Not: Confusion and Misconceptions


In today’s world, businesses and large corporations throw the term sustainability around. The reason for this is to portray environmental responsibility and awareness.


This is especially true for marketing purposes because when something is ‘sustainable’ it gets a positive light in the public’s eye. Even if the product or service is not sustainable. For this reason, there are a lot of misconceptions and poor definitions of what sustainability actually means.


A term you’ll often hear from corporations is “sustainable growth”. However, this is actually an oxymoron. By definition, growth is unsustainable.

“The term “sustainable growth” is used by our political leaders even though the term is clearly an oxymoron”. – Bartlett 1998



Additionally, better technology is not the answer. Since Earth has finite resources, there are limits to human growth, we can only grow to a certain point no matter our technological advances. Technology will surely help us minimize impacts in the short term, allowing for our current economic paradigm to continue longer, which only adds to the problem.

“…modern technology, in the presence of continued economic growth, does not promote sustainability but instead hastens collapse.” – Huesemann & Huesemann 2011


Solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, or any other form of renewable energy are not the answer either by themselves. This is because as the population and consumption increases, so does the number of renewable resources needed. Under our current growth paradigm, we will eventually destroy every last bit of the environment by constructing renewable energy to support our growth.



This is closer to the right idea because it serves to protect the environment directly. But what happens when we run out of fertile land to farm? Or we need more land for renewable energy to sustain our growth? My bet is that the government will take the land out of conservation in order to mitigate a crisis. This is why conservation still isn’t the answer.



Because sustainability gets thrown around a lot there is a lot of confusion on what sustainability actually means. Below sums up the spectrum of ways sustainability gets used:

“At one end of the spectrum, the term [sustainability] is used with precision by people who are introducing new concepts as a consequence of thinking profoundly about the long-term future of the human race.

In the middle of the spectrum, the term is simply added as a modifier to the names and titles of very beneficial studies in efficiency, etc. that have been in progress for years.

Near the other end of the spectrum, the term is used as a placebo. In some cases the term may be used mindlessly (or possibly with the intent to deceive) in order to try to shed a favorable light on continuing activities that may or may not be capable of continuing for long periods of time.

 At the very far end of the spectrum, we see the term used in a way that is oxymoronic.”- Bartlett 1998

Don’t get me wrong, many of these are very beneficial. These ideas can help us reduce impacts until we reach sustainability. They’re also tools for when we’ve become sustainable. My point is that even though they’re portrayed to be sustainable, they are not by themselves. Tackling the growth paradigm is.


What Are The Three Pillars Of Sustainability?

The three pillars of sustainability that are most often used are:

  1. Environmental sustainability
  2. Economic (industry) sustainability
  3. Social (society) sustainability

The diagram depicts how each pillar is related. They are described below.


3 Pillars of Sustainability Diagram (Fiksel 2012)

Environmental Sustainability

What is Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability considers the impacts of ecosystem goods (food, water, wood, medicine…etc.) and services (climate regulation, water purification, balanced ecosystems).

Environmental sustainability occurs when these environmental goods and services can replenish equal to, or faster than consumption. This allows future generations to thrive.


Why is Environmental Sustainability Important?

Environmental sustainability is the most important of the three pillars because it is the foundation and limiting factor upon which all other pillars are able to exist.


Without the environment, society and the economy could not occur. This is because, at the core, all basic human needs come from the environment; clean water, fresh and healthy food, unpolluted air, shelter are all environmental.

What is Sustainability? 3_Pillars_of_Sustainability_Diagram_circles

The diagram above explains the relationship between the three pillars of sustainability, in which both economy and society are constrained by environmental limits. – University of Maine Diagram


The current consumption of environmental resources is increasing at a high rate. This rate is occurring much faster than the replenishment rate. This means consumption is unsustainable and will result in resource depletion.

“Today [2013] humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.” (20) – (Czech 2013)


In 2020, we now use 1.75 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our wastes (footprintnetwork.org). Environmental sustainability is vital for future generations to live healthy and abundant in the future. If we wait until it’s too late, the transition will likely be disastrous.

Social Sustainability


What is Social Sustainability?

If you look around on the internet you won’t find a very clear definition of social sustainability. I believe a more appropriate term for social sustainability would be human well-being.

“Social sustainability is the least defined and least understood of the different ways of approaching sustainability and sustainable development. Social sustainability has had considerably less attention in public dialogue than economic and environmental sustainability.”- Wikipedia


In my opinion, the definition of social sustainability is the ability to pursue all requirements for human well-being without negatively affecting future generations.


The primary human requirements for well-being are defined by Human Scale Development and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:


  1. Subsistence
  2. Protection
  3. Participation
  4. Understanding
  5. Affection
  6. Idleness
  7. Creation
  8. Identity
  9. Freedom


  1. Being
  2. Having
  3. Doing

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid.

Photo from Here


Why is Social Sustainability Important?

Social sustainability is important to make sure individuals get their needs met so society can function smoothly. If human needs can’t be met, especially the most basic ones, chaos is likely to occur.


As the population or society grows and/or remains unsustainable the distribution of wealth between individuals decreases. This is because there is less to go around which causes resources to become increasingly scarcer. Resources becoming more scarce threatens individual well-being.

“The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.” – Bartlett 1998


Since human needs are directly related to the environment (food, water shelter, etc..) social sustainability is directly linked with environmental sustainability. Without a sustainable environment, resources will eventually become exhausted, leading to societies not being able to meet their most basic needs.


Additionally, economic sustainability is constrained by society. Once a society is sustainable this can give rise to economic sustainability. With a sustainable economy human rights, needs, laws, and other societal needs can be enforced.


Economic Sustainability

What is Economic Sustainability?

Economic sustainability is when the full life-cycle of products; the extraction, consumption, to disposal of energy, goods, and services does not exceed the speed at which Earth can naturally renew them. Economic sustainability can occur when the entire cycle does not negatively impact the society or the environment for future generations (the cradle-to-grave paradigm).


Businesses and organizations often misinterpret economic sustainability as the growth and prosperity of businesses and organizations. However, this is a false interpretation as mentioned in the misconception section of this post. Economic sustainability is about much more than the sustained growth of resources and business profit margins.


Currently, the health of our economy is reliant on perpetual growth, which is unsustainable and the source of our environmental sustainability issues today. In order to have long-term economic sustainability, the economy should be a subset of the environment, not the other way around so that perpetual growth cannot occur.

“Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.” – Bartlett 1998

Degrowth is Economic Sustainability
Photo from Here

Why is Economic Sustainability Important?

The understanding of perpetual growth and the role it plays in our economy is profound. Our perpetual growth-based economy and our addiction to this growth is the core principle keeping humanity unsustainable.

“The perpetual economic growth you have always known will become less and less possible as the cheap energy powering it steadily diminishes.” – (Boyd 2013)


Armed with the knowledge that the economy is the source of the problem people can begin to mentally accept and generate solutions in order to pivot away from perpetual growth.



Another profound realization of the current state of our economy is; we’ve borrowed most of our economic wealth from the future. It’s not real.

“Most of what we know as wealth is a claim upon future economic growth, growth that has, to date, been made possible by huge supplies of cheap energy. Now, with increasing constraints on cheap energy, the vast majority of that wealth will be shown to be a mirage. The “financialization” of the advanced industrial economies in the past few decades has exacerbated this problem by greatly increasing such “wealth” in the form of debt and equity holdings.” – (Boyd 2013)


Borrowing occurs through debit, credit, and equity holdings. Borrowing from the future has worked in the past because of the vast amounts of powerful cheap energy (fossil fuels) we could fall back on. Today, however, this is becoming increasingly less of the case and will end up exacerbating the issue.

“Over the last 500 years the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future. This trust created credit; credit brought real economic growth; and growth strengthened the trust in the future and opened the way for even more credit… Today, there is so much credit in the world that governments, business corporations, and private individuals easily obtain large, long-term and low-interest loans that far exceed current income.” – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Linking money to finite physical goods such as gold and silver occurred in the past. Today, nothing links money to the physical realm. Money is a promise/expectation of future growth.

“Every dollar used to be backed by gold or silver but is now an IOU guaranteed to be paid by the taxpayers of the issuing country. As long as the rest of the world has confidence in the American taxpayer to work and pay for this IOU called money, the world has confidence in our dollar. If that key element of money, confidence, suddenly disappears, the economy comes down like a house of cards.” – (Kiyosaki 1998)


Relationship Between Fossil Fuels and the Economy

In order to understand sustainability, it is important to understand the relationship between fossil fuels and the economy.

Sustainability and Peak Oil
Photo From Here

Fossil fuels are extremely powerful. They allow us to do work so much faster than ever before. Fossil fuels are the crutch to our economy. Without fossil fuels we could not maintain the increasing amount of work we do. 

“a barrel of oil contains the equivalent of 10,000-25,000 hours of human work (Latouche 2009)” – Kallis 2018


But what happens when fossil fuels run out? Our economy will decline in proportion to fossil fuels. The link between fossil fuels and the economy is important for making wise decisions going forward.


Interrelationships Between the Pillars

There are three pillars of sustainability; environmental, economic, and social.

What is Sustainability? Venn Diagram vs Circle Chart

University of Maine Diagram

The two diagrams above often get used to depict these three pillars of sustainability. However, the circle to the right is a more accurate way to visualize the pillars of sustainability. This is because the right shows the pillars from most important to least important. For example, it shows society is a subset of the environment, and the economy is a subset of society and the environment.


Environmental sustainability is the most important of the three pillars because it is the foundation and limiting factor upon which all other pillars are able to exist.


Social sustainability is the second pillar and can rise once the environment is sustainable. Basic human needs can be met once the environment is sustainable.


Economic sustainability the third pillar and is critical to address because it is our perpetual growth economy that is causing increasing damage to environmental issues. A sustainable economy can arise when the environment and society become sustainable. When we shift to a sustainable economic paradigm we will see big changes.


Our perpetual growth paradigm is at the heart of our sustainability issues. Moving away from growth will lead to true sustainability.


  1. Boyd, Roger. Energy and the Financial System What Every Economist, Financial Analyst, and Investor Needs to Know. Springer International Publishing, 2013.
  2. Czech, Brian. Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. New Society Publishers, 2013.
  3. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  4. Fiksel, Joseph. (2012). A systems view of sustainability: The triple value model. Environmental Development. 2. 138–141. 10.1016/j.envdev.2012.03.015.
  5. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind. Vintage, 2019.
  6. Huesemann, Michael, and Joyce Huesemann. Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment. New Society Publishers, 2011.
  7. Kallis, Giorgos. Degrowth (The Economy: Key Ideas). Kindle Edition., Agenda Publishing 2018. 
  8. Kiyosaki, Robert T.. Rich Dad’s CASHFLOW Quadrant: Rich Dad’s Guide to Financial Freedom (p. 136). Plata Publishing, LLC 1998.. Kindle Edition.
  9. Latouche, Serge. Farewell to Growth. Translated by David Macey, Polity, 2009.

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Article Written By: Jason Tome

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