The Three Pillars of Sustainability

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

When we think of sustainable practices, we often think of recycling and conservation.

While these are important elements to consider when thinking about sustainability, there is so much more than that! 

Today I want to discuss the three pillars of sustainability: environmentalism, social responsibility and economic viability.

As a business owner or manager, you should know how your company fits into each category to make informed decisions about whether or not it makes sense for you to adopt sustainable practices.

We all want to live longer and healthier lives.

The world would be a better place if everyone could live their best possible lives for as long as possible; however, we cannot ignore the effects our lifestyles have on our environment. 

Conclusion This is why there's such an emphasis on living these days sustainably: it helps us preserve the planet for future generations and improve our quality of life now by reducing stress levels and promoting healthy habits.

Sustainability is an increasingly important topic. Of course, there are many different ways to define sustainability.

Still, they all revolve around the idea of using resources in a way that does not harm the environment or its ability to provide for future generations. This article will discuss three pillars of sustainability: environmental stewardship, social justice, and economic viability. 

The first pillar is environmental stewardship which can be defined as "the principle of sustainable development based on a precautionary approach and an awareness that humans have a moral responsibility towards nature". 

Basically, it means being very careful about how we use our natural resources! The second pillar is social justice which refers to "a concept of a society where assets and opportunities are distributed fairly through mechanisms such as taxation."

Sustainability has become one of those buzzwords we throw around casually these days without really understanding its true meaning or implications for our future generations.

However, there are three very real pillars of sustainability that need to be taken seriously to ensure the Earth remains habitable for generations to come.

But sustainability goes beyond just recycling your water bottles and riding your bike to work: three pillars encompass the true meaning of sustainable living. 

While all three pillars are equally important, we'll focus on knowledge this time around. 

Sustainable living is about changing our habits to live within the limits of our ecosystem by reducing consumption, reusing materials whenever possible, and learning as much as we can about where our food comes from.

It's something that everyone needs to understand, no matter what industry you are in.

Whether you are working on sustainability initiatives or concerned about the environment, three things will help you create a sustainable future for our planet and generations to come. 

These pillars of sustainability can be applied across any industry and provide an easy framework for understanding how your company can contribute to the greater good through responsible business practices.

To have a sustainable business, you need to incorporate three pillars: environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and economic viability. 

Each of these pillars is important in its own way and contributes to the overall success of your business.  In this blog post, we will discuss each pillar individually to understand better how they work together in a company. 

Sustainability is a term that gets thrown around quite often, but what does it mean? Sustainability encompasses many different aspects of life and can be applied to almost any field.

This article will cover three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. These three pillars are the foundation of sustainable living. 

Let's get started!

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is basically the ability to provide for the current generation's needs using available resources without causing future generations any problem with providing for their own needs. 

The concept applies to the environment, which is considered the most crucial pillar of sustainability today, and to other aspects, including the people and the economy.

Therefore, this is an important part of PEST Analysis and ESG analysis.

What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

Sustainability is often broken into three intertwined categories: social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability.

Together, these three forms of sustainability are known as the "three pillars of sustainability." 

The three pillars of sustainability provide a framework for applying a solutions-oriented approach to complicated sustainability issues like fisheries management.

The "three pillars" concept is fundamental to many companies, institutions, and government agencies today, including the United Nations (UN) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Despite their widespread application, the three pillars have no clear origin.

Instead, the three pillars of sustainability are thought to have formed gradually through economic, environmental, and social critiques in early academic literature.

However, it wasn't until the 1980s that the three pillars of sustainability became a part of the mainstream culture.

Despite what you may think, protecting the environment is not the only tenet of sustainability.

In fact, the environment is just one of the three pillars of sustainability: environment, society, and economy. 

When all three pillars are solid, people live in a world where the excellent quality of life is standard.

They have an unsullied, thriving environment, an acceptable degree of economic welfare, and a good amount of social satisfaction.

Let’s explore how these three concepts together can create a more sustainable future for the world.

Where Did the Three Pillars of Sustainability Come From?

To find out the history of the three pillars of sustainability, we'll start by looking at the term sustainability itself and when it became popularized.

You may be surprised to learn that the term “sustainability” has been around for a long time, going back even to the 17th Century, when forestry experts introduced the idea in response to diminishing forest resources across Europe. 

Additionally, early political economists during the Industrial Revolution looked at the concept of sustainability regarding the limits of economic growth, wealth generation, and social justice.

Finally, the current version of the term was introduced in the early 1970s, where it quickly became a mainstream way of describing the world's limited resources.

With the rise of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, increased awareness of extensive environmental ruin became a point to question the modern growth-based economy and its sustainability on a limited planet. 

Thus the term “sustainable development” arose, being first published in 1980 when the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published their ‘World Conservation Strategy‘, subtitled ‘Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development‘.

The document was the first international publication on living resource conservation created with inputs from governments, non-governmental organizations, and other experts. 

It contends that for development to be sustainable, it should support conservation, protect ecological processes, and sustain species and ecosystems, laying the cornerstones for the defining tenet of sustainable development. 

The term is defined as that which “must take account of social and ecological factors, as well as economic ones”, an early reference to the three pillars as they are known today.

In 1987, the Brundtland report first used the term "sustainable development" as an alternative to the economic system implemented in most countries worldwide. Unlike that system, it seeks to meet current needs without compromising the future of future generations.

Five years later, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 defined this idea in more detail and established a detailed plan of action, Project XXI, which set three areas on which global, national and local authorities had to work to establish sustainable development.

Exploring The Three Pillars of Sustainability

If we only achieve two out of the three pillars of sustainability, we end up with:

  • Social + Economic Sustainability = Equitable
  • Social + Environmental Sustainability = Bearable
  • Economic + Environmental Sustainability = Viable

Let's explore each of these pillars and how actions in each sector affect the others.

Pillar 1: The Environment

When you think of the term sustainability, your first association is probably something to do with the environment. Things like air quality, ecosystem preservation, resource integrity, and water quality are all examples of topics related to the environmental pillar.

When a company decides to go net-zero, that is an example of addressing the environmental pillar.

To exploit natural resources without exhausting them and contributing to their recovery for subsequent uses, special environmental protection is required, which, as occurred in previous cases, must also consider the needs of the population and the economic resources of the society in which they are applied.

The environmental pillar is the largest system in the world and includes the biosphere we live in.

Therefore it is the highest priority because it contains the human system, which is made up of the social and economic systems. 

This is why some visualizations of the pillars portray the environment as the larger whole containing the social and economic subsystems within it.

The environmental pillar is arguably the world's largest actual problem because it is defined as the ability to support environmental quality and natural resource extraction rates indefinitely. 

The lower the loading capacity of the environment is, the lower the public welfare delivered by the social system is, and the less production the economic system can generate.

Herman Daly, an ecological economist, proposed a way of looking at environmental sustainability in his 1990 commentary, ‘Toward some operational principles of sustainable development‘:

  • For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield);
  • [For pollution] The rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal; and
  • For nonrenewable resources, the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource.

In essence, the environmental pillar boils down to living within the means of our natural resources. Currently, we're not doing this. If things don't change our consumption habits, some resources could be depleted within our lifetime. 

For example, the British Petroleum Statistical Review determined that if global oil consumption remains steady, it gives us about 50 years until we run out of oil.

Similarly, the group estimates we have about 52.6 years of natural gas available for use.

Even worse, according to the International Resource Panel, almost half of the world’s population might struggle with getting fresh water by 2030. 

Clearly, environmental resources are running out fast, and it's up to our governments, companies, and societies to prepare for the coming change and propose new ways to live within the means of what the planet has to offer.

  • 150 years until coal runs out.
  • 52.6 years of natural gas available for use.
  • 50 years until we run out of oil.
  • Almost half of the world’s population might struggle with getting fresh water by 2030.
  • We only have 50-100 years of phosphorus left on the planet, which is critical to producing enough food through agriculture.
  • Zinc, gold, and lead reserves will be depleted by around 2030 if current production continues.
  • Silver and iridium will last until about 2035.
  • Copper could run out before 2050.

Pillar 2: Society

Social sustainability comes down to one main idea: that the social well-being of a country, community, or organization can be maintained in the long term. 

Covering aspects such as education, health, personal safety and leisure.

The aim is to maintain social cohesion, and it relates to respecting the environment and the economic resources of the place.

To do this, we need to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group.

By focusing on human health, environmental justice, education, and sustainable communities, we can help ensure that humans all over the planet can live healthy lives with everything needed to survive and thrive.

So what are the indicators of a socially precarious system? Some examples include widespread poverty, large-scale injustice, poor education rates, war, and insecurity of resources. 

Think about what happens when a war breaks out in a country. Environmental issues are pushed aside and sometimes even made worse due to conditions of war.

On the business side, companies should look out for social sustainability in their supply chain and workforce. For example, are there safe and healthy working conditions in the factories making your products? 

Do you pay fair wages? Do you ensure that no child labour is going into the products you sell? What about animal testing?

The social sustainability can be made stronger through many types of efforts:

  • Empowering communities to take action to improve the health of their environment, especially in areas that have been polluted and over-exploited.
  • Providing public access to information could help bring more comprehension and investment in sustainability.
  • Promoting the advancement, alteration, design, or construction of sustainable communities through measures like green infrastructure and renewable energy technologies.

Pillar 3: The Economy

The economic pillar refers to the capacity of an economy to uphold a certain level of economic output infinitely.

This pillar encompasses topics like looking at the costs of sustainability efforts in businesses, job creation and upward mobility, government incentives for sustainable practices, and market practices that promote environmental health and social prosperity.

A productive system must meet the needs of that society without jeopardizing the natural resources and well-being of future generations.

Therefore, its application will be closely related to the needs of the population and environmental limits.

This pillar is often the impetus behind suspending efforts on the environmental side.

During a recession, for example, environmental programs are often the first to lose funding and investment. As a result, priorities shift to economic issues, casting aside the future of the environment.

Another way the economic pillar inhibits the environmental one is through cost. For example, If the cost-effectiveness of a new, more sustainable technology is much higher than a legacy one, it will be significantly more difficult to implement it.

However, as society becomes more educated on the importance of environmental sustainability, efforts to create good solutions for both business and the planet have started to emerge. 

Governments have started offering incentives and tax breaks for green business practices.

As a result, reducing waste and increased usage of recycled materials in production have padded the bottom line for many businesses while also reducing environmental impact.

In addition, innovative technologies have provided new job opportunities for communities, building up the economy in those areas.

Economic sustainability also means ensuring that companies who do rely on natural resources can survive in the long term.

If that resource your company depends on runs out, your business will no longer exist as well. 

So it's in the best interest of those companies to ensure that natural resources stick around for the future and find new, sustainable ways of conducting business that won't harm the company's long-term success.

Five Domains of Sustainability

There is a diagram that illustrates how sustainable communities are achieved, and it involves the overlapping of different domains, including the three pillars of sustainability, namely, planet (environmental), people (socio-cultural), and profit (economic). If one is missing, then a sustainable community will not be achieved.

For example, a community already has a contented set of residents.

They have almost everything they need within reaches, such as work opportunities, parks, and groceries, but don't have stable communication lines for internet connection and landline and cellular phone access. 

The technological domain here is missing.

Therefore, the community is not sustainable because, without communication lines, there will be no interaction or opportunity for growth and collaboration with other communities.

In another example, consider the same community with many job opportunities from booming companies, contented people or residents, and a unique transportation system. 

However, the community lacks a public policy that will protect its residents from successful companies that do not follow acceptable waste disposal standards.

Eventually, the community will be destroyed, and its resources will be depleted.

Therefore, no community can be sustainable if one of the domains is missing.

Elements Of The Second Order Of Sustainability

The main complexity in terms of implementing these concepts is that they cannot be applied independently, but rather they must be combined together.

This leads to the second level of ideas that put the main ones into context:

  • Supportable: the ratio between the actions to respect the environment and implement social measures must be balanced.
  • Feasible: the respect for the environment and economic development must be possible, pragmatic and away from unrealistic and unachievable objectives to continue gradually achieving objectives.
  • Fair: the ratio between economic development and social benefits must satisfy both parties, who must receive under their requirements and provide under their possibilities.

How Can You Plan A Sustainable City?

Cities are one of the scenarios in which the three principles of sustainability and their derivatives must be applied. 

A sustainable urban environment shall be one which, among other aspects, considers population density, avoiding extremely overcrowded territories and uninhabited places since only by doing this will infrastructures be able to be efficient and financially viable.

Furthermore, both in newly built cities and in historic cities, these infrastructures must be planned in a way that districts allow mixed uses in which commercial retail office and residential housing, schools, parks and leisure spaces come together. 

This will prevent the so-called commuter towns from being created while also reducing distances, optimizing the use of public transport, reducing pollution and favouring recycling policies and waste management.

Lastly, the economic activity must contribute to social cohesion through work-life balance policies, support for continuous development, and other aspects that contribute to the improvement of inhabitants' quality of life, without forgetting its commitment to environmental improvements.

Sustainability Challenges in Finance and Investments

The relationship between profit and the other pillars of sustainability is clear and very easy to understand. 

However, it can be challenging for many companies or businesses because it may mean not going full-speed at making profits because of consequences to the environment and the people.

So what organizations should do is adjust their profit targets and invest in programs that will promote sustainability.

Going back to the example above about the diesel power plant that doesn't adhere to acceptable waste disposal standards, the company can research how it can minimize its waste. 

They should understand that adhering to sustainability can spell better earnings on a long-term basis and that the earnings in the next few years and decades are as important as the earnings in the next quarter.

The Bottom Line

In the end, the future sustainability of our planet depends on all of us, from governments to nonprofits, from citizens to corporations. However, each of us can take steps to ensure that our planet remains a habitable place for us to live.

If you or your community is interested in building out the sustainability efforts in your area, let us know!

We work with all types of organizations to help them create more resilient, future-proof environments.

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