What is sustainability?

How sustainability works, with examples and definitions

To build a more sustainable economy, every actor, whether business, investor, policymaker or consumer, has a role to play. The starting point of sustainability is that today's world is unsustainable when looked at from multiple interrelated lenses: social, environmental and economic.

But what does sustainability mean? The term is linked to a range of practices, from reducing carbon emissions, to promoting social justice, to mitigating climate risk, to protecting ecosystems. It can be difficult for organizations to know where to start and what to focus on. Read on for the definitions, benefits and the how-to of sustainability.

What is sustainability?

Broadly, sustainability means meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future.

It means promoting prosperity for all, while protecting the planet and ensuring future generations have the resources they need.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The concept of sustainability grew out of movements for social justice, internationalism and conservationism. By the 1980s, governments and activists alike recognized that the economic development of industrialized countries had negative consequences for global social equity and environmental health.

The term sustainable development was coined in the Brutland Commission’s ‘Our common future’ report in 1987, and evolved into the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). These 17 goals are used as guiding principles in corporate sustainability.

Corporate sustainability

Corporate sustainability focuses on the social, environmental and economic effects of business practices.

The starting assumption is that ‘business as usual’ is not sustainable. Today’s global economy is a major contributor to crises like climate change.

Every business has a role to play in creating a low-carbon sustainable economy that works for people and planet. Sustainable businesses actively identify, rethink and transform their operations, supply chains and products across the three pillars of sustainability.

Adopting sustainable practices can bring a range of business benefits, as well as challenges.

How does sustainability work?

There are three interconnected pillars of sustainability (economic, environmental, and social) which governments, companies and other organizations follow to set and achieve their sustainability targets.

“Ecological sustainability is simply unachievable under conditions of social or economic unsustainability.” (Gladwin et al, 1995)

The three pillars of sustainability

1. Economic sustainability

Economic sustainability means ensuring economic prosperity that works for people and planet, now and in the future.

In practice, this involves:

  • Promoting long-term economic growth and development (including economic progress, GDP, profitability and competitiveness), without harming the environment or creating injustices
  • Generating wealth and resources that are allocated fairly and equitably
  • Ensuring universal access to economic activities like employment
  • Fostering entrepreneurship and innovation that support sustainable activities

2. Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability, in its simplest terms, means a healthy planet.

It means maintaining the ecological integrity of the planet, and ensuring that the natural environment can support the health and well-being of present and future generations. It means managing and using natural resources in a way that doesn’t compromise future needs.

In practice, this involves:

  • Conserving and protecting natural resources, e.g.:
    – Water
    – Land
    – Air
    – Biodiversity
  • Minimizing environmental damage, e.g.:
    – Climate change (climate adaptation and climate mitigation)
    – Waste
    – Pollution
    – Destruction of natural habitats
    – Loss of biodiversity
Climate change and environmental sustainability:

Climate action and net zero are key elements of environmental sustainability.

The world must limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, to prevent the worst social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change. This involves reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030, and by 100% (net zero) by 2050.

It’s critical for every organization, city, country, project and industry to set emissions reduction targets in line with those goals, which were developed out of the Paris Agreement. To set these goals, and be accountable to them (by tracking and reporting progress), organizations need to undertake accurate carbon accounting (calculating and tracking GHG emissions).

3. Social sustainability

Social sustainability refers to societies, lives and livelihoods.

It means providing for and empowering people, in a way that’s equitable. It’s about ensuring human societies worldwide have the ability to provide citizens with high qualities of life and access to resources, now and in the future.

In practice, this includes:

  • Ensuring access to basic necessities like food, shelter, water
  • Ensuring access to universal human rights like healthcare, education and economic activities like employment
  • Promoting justice, equality and diversity in social systems and institutions

The triple bottom line

The triple bottom line is a framework developed by John Elkington in 1994 to measure business performance.

The triple bottom line subverts the traditional idea that there’s one bottom line in business (profit) and instead proposes three: people, planet, and profit (or sometimes referred to as ‘people, planet and prosperity’). The triple bottom line maps onto the three pillars of sustainability, turning those pillars into a framework that tracks a business’s sustainability performance.

The underlying theory of the triple bottom line is that companies can be managed in ways that not only make money and serve shareholder interests, but that also promote human well-being and environmental protection.

The triple bottom line involves implementing and tracking progress against practices that might include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Profit / prosperity:
    – Optimizing the profit and loss (P&L) account
    – Paying relevant taxes
    – Selecting suppliers and investors who align with the organization’s sustainability principles
    – Ensuring long-term company resilience and health
  • People:
    – Ensuring fair wages, professional development and volunteering opportunities for all employees
    – Choosing local, smaller and/or minority-owned suppliers
    – Ensuring equity in customer access to products and addressing feedback related to justice, safety and inclusion
    – Ensuring a just transition; creating new job opportunities that support environmental sustainability when winding down high-carbon activities
  • Planet:
    – Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions towards net zero
    – Eliminating deforestation from supply chains
    – Responsibly managing and using water
    – Investing in nature-based solutions to climate change
    – Divesting from fossil fuels

Criticisms of the triple bottom line

The way in which companies and their stakeholders have applied the triple bottom line has come under criticism, including by its very own inventor John Elkington. 25 years after coining the term, Elkington claimed that the original radical goal of doing things differently had been lost, and instead the triple bottom line approach had been reduced to a “mere accounting tool”.  

Businesses should:

  • Focus on making their organization as a whole sustainable, rather than simply identifying a few economic, social and environmental benefits of their activities;
  • Go beyond reporting and accounting alone; use that data to set ambitious and measurable targets.


What is the fourth pillar of sustainability?

In recent years, a fourth pillar of sustainability (alongside economic, environmental and social) has been emphasized, particularly in policymaking. This fourth pillar is cultural sustainability. Cultural sustainability recognizes the need to preserve cultural diversity and heritage, and support their transmission to future generations.

Is sustainability the same as ESG?

Sustainability and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) are distinct but overlapping concepts.

Sustainability is a commitment to positive economic, social and environmental benefits for current and future generations, and an implementation of that commitment.

ESG is a framework to evaluate the environmental, social, and governance practices of companies. Investors use ESG criteria to measure the sustainability and ethical impacts of investments, and to identify companies that manage risks effectively.

What are some examples of ESG metrics?

Depending on the industry, geography, and investment strategy, different investors and companies may use different ESG metrics. Some common examples include:

Environmental metrics:

  • Water usage
  • GHG emissions
  • Energy efficiency
  • Waste production and disposal
  • Hazardous materials management

Social metrics:

  • Employee diversity and inclusion
  • Health and safety performance
  • Labor practices and human rights
  • Community engagement and CSR
  • Product safety and quality

Governance metrics:

  • Board composition and diversity
  • Executive compensation
  • Shareholder rights
  • Anti-corruption policies
  • Risk management and compliance

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