What is sustainability?

March 14, 2023

It’s about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

With sustainable buzzwords plastered everywhere these days, more and more frequently, people ask, “What is sustainability?” From politicians and corporations to small-time bloggers, just about everyone’s talking about it. But all the new voices stoking the discussion can drown out a clear explanation and definition of sustainability.

Considering the transformation the term has undergone since its coining, we could all benefit from a Sustainability 101 refresher.

Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Future-proof your business by fighting climate change

Request a demo
Sustain.Life Leaf Logo

How we should define sustainability 

Not until the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission did we establish our most contemporary understanding of sustainable development as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In 2015, the U.N. went further with the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), representing 17 major issues that require sustainable solutions, including climate change, water conservation, clean energy, and sustainable cities and communities. Since then, annual U.N. conventions on SDG efforts have kept the global conversation alive. 

As more experts shine a light on human activities that negatively impact ecosystems and disrupt the planet’s natural balance, they stress the need for sustainable solutions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sustainability is built on the principle that “everything we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly on our natural environment.” Therefore in pursuing sustainability, we “create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony,” now and for future generations.  

Sustainability and cities

Sustainable urbanization is critical to our climate goals, and cities represent one of the most significant sustainability opportunities. Over half of the world’s population live in cities, and that number is projected to reach 68% by 2050. It should come as no surprise then to hear that cities traditionally cause 70% of global carbon emissions and consume over 60% of the planet’s resources. However, cities are still more efficient per capita than suburban environments. While they generate a lot of trash and emissions, that’s because it’s where most people live and most industry and economic activity takes place.  

The U.N. predicts we’ll face a 40% shortfall in water availability by 2030. The World Bank projects that by 2050, growing populations will increase global waste generation by 70%. Despite these staggering predictions, sustainable urbanization and intentional city planing are critical solutions to these adverse affects. The opportunities to develop and manage clean, efficient cities with improved public services are nearly endless. Improvements to waste collection and processing, wastewater treatment, renewable power, enhanced building codes (e.g., electrifying new construction to reduce the combustion of fossil fuels for heating and cooling) are all on the table.  

The cost of renewable electricity has dropped since 2009, making clean, resource-efficient energy a viable option to power more city infrastructure. The U.N. estimates a zero-carbon or electric public transportation option “could prevent 250 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2030.” A 2016 analysis suggests that the simple shift to walking, cycling, and public transport could also save $21 trillion by 2050.

Three pillars of sustainable development

To better understand sustainability’s intersectionality, the EPA categorizes it into three pillars: environmental, social, and economic.

Environmental pillar

They encourage more green engineering, improved air and water quality, reduced pollutants and carbon emissions, and minimizing resource extraction and waste.

Social pillar

Issues like environmental justice, health, participation, awareness, and access to basic needs make up the second pillar.

Economic pillar

Focuses on sustainable business: job creation, incentivizing significant transitions, and promoting innovation. It also calls for more accurate cost-benefit analysis, taking production effects into account on ecosystem stability.

How you can make a difference

You may be wondering, “How could one person in a city of millions make a difference?” For starters, you have the power to engage civically. Sustainable development requires good public policies and practices, which constituents should demand from city officials.

Additionally, responsible consumer action brings large-scale change. The more individuals commit to sustainable purchases, the more they drive suppliers and service providers to respond. In a 2019 study, 50% of all growth in consumer packaged goods (CPG) between 2013 and 2019 came from sustainability-marketed products. 90% of the 36 CPG categories with sustainability-marketed products experienced faster growth than their conventional equivalents. For example, corporate giant Unilever purchased Seventh Generation and other sustainably-focused companies. As a result, it has seen 70% of its turnover growth coming from “sustainable living” brands.  

Like cities, sustainable business practices impact environments and bottom lines. Tech solutions can reduce a business’s carbon footprint while cutting immediate and upstream costs in the process. Strengthening local supply chains lessens long-range transport pollution and preserves biodiversity. It also lowers shipping costs and supports grassroots economic growth. Even supporting small-scale sustainability entrepreneurs and financing sustainable infrastructure projects like solar farms creates a stable and healthy consumer base willing to help your company.   

One of the most important aspects of sustainability is the need for collaboration. Everyone—individuals, businesses, NGOs, and governments—needs to play a role in protecting our environment and way of life for this generation and those to come. The more we incorporate the three pillars of sustainable development into everything we do, the more powerful a tool sustainability becomes to improve our lives. 

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Graceann Barrett
Graceann Barrett is a freelance writer with over five years of experience covering sustainability, human and animal rights, political policy, mental health, and fitness and nutrition.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• Sustainability is built on the principle that everything we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly on our natural environment.

• The EPA categorizes sustainability into three pillars: environmental, social, and economic.