What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

Sustainability is a word that is often thrown around, but its meaning can be unclear. What does it mean to be sustainable? And how do we get there?  In this blog post, I break down the three pillars of sustainability and provide tips on how to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

Sustainability is a buzzword that has been thrown around for years, but what does it mean?

Sustainability can be defined as the ability to endure or continue in existence. 

While sustainability may seem like an abstract concept, there are three main pillars of sustainability: economic development, social equity and environmental protection.

By following these sustainability principles, we create a healthier world for all living things on this planet.

Everyone wants to know how they can live more sustainably and have an overall better impact on the environment.

Unfortunately, most people are not familiar with what it means to be sustainable, but that doesn't mean you should give up hope!

This article will cover three pillars of sustainability that you can implement into your life for a greener future.

What are the three pillars of sustainability? Sustainability is a word that has been thrown around a lot lately, but it can be not easy to understand.

In this blog post, we will talk about the three pillars of sustainability and how they work together to create a sustainable system. 

The first pillar of sustainability is consumption.

This means using fewer resources than you produce by making smarter choices about products and services. 

The second pillar is production - creating goods and services with minimal pollution or waste from raw materials to finished products without harming communities where these things are made or used. 

Finally, there's equity - developing economic opportunities for producers and consumers, so everyone benefits from an equitable economy based on principles like fairness and justice for all people.

There are three pillars of sustainability, the first being environmental protection. This is when you reduce your impact on the environment by using less electricity, water, and natural resources.

The second pillar is social responsibility, which entails knowing how your actions can impact others in society. 

Finally, economic stability encourages businesses to operate in a way that will not put them out of business or cause financial hardship for their employees.

These three pillars all work together and create an overall sustainable lifestyle for everyone involved!

To achieve success in all three areas, you must take small steps rather than do everything at once. 

Many different tools can help you track your progress on this journey but don't let them distract from the goal itself.

The most important thing has a plan in place with goals that align with your mission statement as an organization or business entity.

When all pillars work together, they can create an interconnected system that will sustain our future generations.

The first step in making this happen is for each individual to make small changes at home or at work that will help reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. 

For example, turning off lights when you leave a room or using recycled products like clothing instead of new ones you buy from stores.

By working together, we can build a better future for ourselves today and tomorrow!

Read on to learn more about these pillars and how you can help make this planet a nicer place for all living creatures! 

The Three Pillars of Corporate Sustainability

Sustainability is not linked only with the environment but also with the social and economic environment, forming the three pillars that aim to guarantee the planet's integrity and to improve the quality of life.

The three pillars of sustainability lack a clear and consistent definition. As a result, today, the three pillars, along with the definition of "sustainability" itself, are subject to several different interpretations. 

While interpretations of the individual pillars vary, together, the three pillars are meant to work in connection to one another, with true sustainability occurring when the three pillars are balanced.

Corporate sustainability has become a buzzword in companies big and small. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT), McDonald's Corporation (MCD), and many true corporate giants have named sustainability a key priority moving forward. 

Now other corporations are under pressure to show how they plan to commit and deliver their goods and services sustainably. This, of course, begs the question of what exactly this all means. 

Corporate sustainability in investment can fall under the terms ESG for the environment, social, and governance or the acronym SRI which stands for socially responsible investment. Sustainability is most often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

Key Takeaways

  • ESG investment represents the three pillars of sustainable investing: environmental, socially responsible, and governance.
  • With the growth of socially responsible funds and ETFs, corporate sustainability may ultimately add a competitive edge to a company's bottom line.

Viewpoints for sustainability

Let's consider motivations for exploring sustainability – these can be different depending on your worldview: logic, emotion or instinct can be the drivers.

Generally, they are based around concepts of humanity inherently striving for survival. The following are three viewpoints for sustainability:

  • The Ecologist doesn’t see the human race as a separate entity from the planet and its resources, but part of it. Their motivations for preserving the planet are that nature and humanity have an inherent value and should be protected because of that.
  • The Environmentalist sees nature or the planet as separate from the human race. It is there for humans, and as such, humans should have stewardship over the world. They see the planet as something to be preserved so that humans can survive and evolve.
  • The Economist understands the measures of unsustainability arising from a consumer-led culture treating finite resources as an income but has faith that market forces and a "business as usual" approach will result in a natural crisis aversion occurring; that the system will sort itself out through technological advances if left to its own devices.

It is helpful to ask ourselves what our motivations are for seeking sustainability. This can help us articulate our understanding of sustainability and our commitment (or not) to achieving it.

Think about: what are your motivations for taking this course?

What drives your interest – economic viability, environmental protection, social equity? Which viewpoint is closest to yours?

The Environmental Pillar

The environmental pillar has its roots in the many ways to search for environmental preservation, natural resources, and diminishing the damage caused to the environment during the years.

At this stage, the companies study the ways to accomplish their operations, causing the lowest possible impact to the environment.

Environmental sustainability focuses on the well-being of the environment.

This pillar includes water quality, air quality, and reduction of environmental stressors, such as greenhouse gas emissions. 

Human health depends greatly on the quality of a person's environment, inextricably linking human health and the state of the environment.

Therefore, efforts to preserve and restore the environment benefits people, too.

The environmental pillar often gets the most attention.

Companies are focusing on reducing their carbon footprints, packaging waste, water usage, and overall effect on the environment. 

Companies have found that having a beneficial impact on the planet can also have a positive financial impact.

For example, lessening the amount of material used in packaging usually reduces the overall spending on those materials. 

Walmart keyed in on packaging through their zero-waste initiative, pushing for less packaging through their supply chain and for more of that packaging to be sourced from recycled or reused materials.

The environment also provides natural resources necessary to foster economic sustainability. Companies rely on the extraction of natural resources to be economically sustainable.

Therefore, efforts to extract resources at sustainable levels for the environment will also provide economic sustainability through the continued availability of resources.

Other businesses with an undeniable environmental impact, such as mining or food production, approach the environmental pillar through benchmarking and reducing.

However, one of the challenges with the environmental pillar is that a business's impact is often not fully costed, meaning that there are externalities that aren't being captured. 

The all-in costs of wastewater, carbon dioxide, land reclamation and waste, in general, are not easy to calculate because companies are not always the ones on the hook for the waste they produce.

This is where benchmarking comes in to try and quantify those externalities, so that progress in reducing them can be tracked and reported in a meaningful way.

The Social Pillar

It refers to the human capital as the creation of tools that improve the citizens' quality of life, laws to support the necessity of the population and the development of improving politics in areas like education, security and leisure. 

This pillar assumes that the search for a sustainable society has the idea of having a well-cared and healthy society.

Besides, it is important to provide an environment that stimulates honest and healthy work relationships to favour all people involved personal and collective development.

The social pillar ties back into another poorly defined concept: social license. A sustainable business should have the support and approval of its employees, stakeholders and the community it operates in. 

The approaches to securing and maintaining this support vary, but it comes down to treating employees fairly and being a good neighbour and community member, both locally and globally.

Social sustainability includes environmental justice, human health, resource security, and education, among other important social elements of society.

Under the three pillars concept, efforts to promote social sustainability should also aim to foster economic and environmental benefits too.

$12 trillion

Between 2016 and 2018, sustainable, responsible and impact investing grew at a more than 38 per cent rate, rising from $8.7 trillion in 2016 to $12 trillion in 2018, according to the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

For businesses, efforts to generate social sustainability could include focusing company efforts on employee retention instead of economic priorities.

For example, investments in the well-being of employees are likely to generate economic benefits for the company by increasing employee motivation.

Efforts to increase social sustainability can also benefit the environment. For example, people's diet choices can substantially impact both human health and the health of the environment.

Therefore advocacy for healthier eating can benefit the environment, too.

On the employee side, businesses refocus on retention and engagement strategies, including more responsive benefits such as better maternity and paternity benefits, flexible scheduling, and learning and development opportunities. 

For community engagement, companies have come up with many ways to give back, including fundraising, sponsorship, scholarships and investment in local public projects.

On a global social scale, a business needs to know how its supply chain is being filled. For example, is child labour going into your end product? Are people being paid fairly? Is the work environment safe? 

Many large retailers have struggled with this as public outrage over tragedies like the Bangladesh factory collapse, which have illustrated previously unaccounted risks in sourcing from the lowest-cost supplier. 

The Economic Pillar

It refers to subjects about production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.

To have sustainability, companies can not profit at the expense of work exploitation or irresponsible and criminal exploitation of the environment. 

The financial area benefits from sustainable attitudes because they reduce materials, energy and water, also reducing their bill at the end of the month.

In other words, there is a cyclic process of benefits between sustainability and the economy.

The economic pillar of sustainability is where most businesses feel they are on firm ground. To be sustainable, a business must be profitable.

That said, profit cannot trump the other two pillars. 

In fact, profit at any cost is not at all what the economic pillar is about. Activities that fit under the economic pillar include compliance, proper governance and risk management.

While these are already table stakes for most North American companies, they are not globally.

Economic sustainability includes job creation, profitability, and proper accounting of ecosystem services for optimal cost-benefit analyses.

When it comes to the job market, research shows high rates of employment benefit both the economy and the people's social well-being through the resource security employment provides.

 In this way, the economic drivers requiring companies to need employees and people to need jobs can also foster social sustainability if employment offers people security.

Sometimes, this pillar is referred to as the governance pillar, referring to good corporate governance.

This means that boards of directors and management align with shareholders' interests and that of the company's community, value chains, and end-user customers. 

Concerning governance, investors may want to know that a company uses accurate and transparent accounting methods and that stockholders are allowed to vote on important issues. 

They may also want assurances that companies avoid conflicts of interest in their choice of board members, don't use political contributions to obtain unduly favourable treatment, and, of course, don't engage in illegal practices.

The inclusion of the economic pillar and profit makes it possible for corporations to come on board with sustainability strategies.

In addition, the economic pillar provides a counterweight to extreme measures that corporations are sometimes pushed to adopt, such as abandoning fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers instantly rather than phasing in changes. 

However, today's gig economy places social and economic sustainability at odds with one another.

The gig economy causes many people to contribute to the economic sustainability of companies without receiving the social safety nets typically provided by employment in return.

Efforts to be more environmentally sustainable can also benefit the economic sustainability of an organization.

For example, recycling valuable materials, such as electronic waste and textile waste, can lower operating costs and reduce the intensity of resource extraction required to sustain businesses.

The Impact of Sustainability

The main question for investors and executives is whether or not sustainability is an advantage for a company.

In practical terms, all the strategies under sustainability have been co-opted from other business movements like Kaizen, community engagement, the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), talent acquisition, etc. 

Sustainability provides a larger purpose and some new deliverables for companies to strive for and helps them renew their commitments to basic goals like efficiency, sustainable growth and shareholder value.

Perhaps more importantly, a sustainability strategy that is publicly shared can deliver hard-to-quantify benefits such as public goodwill and a better reputation. If it helps a company get credit for things they are already doing, then why not? 

However, there isn't a real market consequence for the companies that cannot point to an overall vision to improve in these three pillars.

The trend seems to be making sustainability, and a public commitment to its basic business practices, much like compliance is for publicly traded companies. 

If this comes to pass, companies lacking a sustainability plan could see a market penalty rather than proactive companies seeing a market premium.

Although it is very much a buzzword, sustainability is here to stay. For some companies, sustainability represents an opportunity to organize diverse efforts under one umbrella concept and gain public credit. 

For other companies, sustainability means answering hard questions about the how and why of their business practices that could have a serious, if gradual, impact on their operations.

Through these pillars that evaluate a company's sustainability, it is possible to identify how close an organization is to be sustainable. 

Therefore, a sustainable company is that, at the end of its evaluation, maintains its previous development level or promotes activities to improve the level of the three areas.

Fundamentally, the three pillars of sustainability harmoniously interact among them because sustainability does not support itself without these three pillars. 

Each one of the pillars shows a context in which sustainability is applied, at the same time that one depends on the other to support themselves.

World population and associated impacts

The global population exceeded 7 billion people in 2015. A century ago, there were about 1.6 billion people in the world and in the 1960s, there were about half the people there are today. 

The population will keep on growing, although the rate at which it does this is disputed. This is because each person in the world requires resources to survive, and so the strain on the earth to supply these resources will also grow.

Although a bigger population generally means more mouths to feed, there is no even distribution of consumption patterns throughout the world. One of the biggest indicators of unsustainability is the maldistribution of wealth. Over a third of the world still live in poverty with limited access to energy, water or food.

In 2006, a team of scholars with the United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research published the first paper, for the entire world, all the major elements of household wealth, everything from financial assets and debts to land, homes, and other tangible property.

This research, based on the year 2000 data, found that the richest 1% of the world's adult population, individuals worth at least $514,512, owned 39.9 % of the world's household wealth, a total greater than the wealth of the world's poorest 95%, those adults worth under $150,145 who hold, together, just 29.4% of the world's wealth.

Personal wealth is distributed so unevenly across the world that the richest 2% of adults own more than 50% of the world's assets while the poorest half hold only 1% of the wealth. 

The USA consumes 25% of the world's energy, with a share of the world population of 4.5%. The figures for material, water and food consumption between the richest nations and the poorest display a similar level of disparity.

Population growth is much higher in developing countries, while resource consumption and pollution are higher in developed countries. As a result, the gap between the ends of the spectrum has been increasing in a similar exponential fashion.

Sustainability focuses as much on humanity (the social corner of the sustainability triangle) as it is on nature (the ecological). Reducing this inequality and providing a basic standard of living conditions for the earth's inhabitants is paramount to the sustainability challenge.

Applications of the Three Pillars

Since the 1980s, when the three pillars were widely popularized, businesses, governments, and organizations have applied the pillars to their practices with variable success.

Yet, conceptually, true sustainability requires even consideration of the three pillars.

Commercial Fishing

When it comes to the three pillars of sustainability, some say the economic drivers of the fishing industry are in direct conflict with both environmental sustainability and social sustainability. 

To achieve economic sustainability, the fishing industry is accused of overfishing the world's oceans to the detriment of the environment and the people who depend on its resources.

Despite the apparent conflict between the commercial fishing industry's economic sustainability and the other two pillars, a recent study argues that the three pillars of sustainability are complementary when it comes to the fishing industry.

The study explains that the key is to eliminate the trade-off between the fishing industry's short-term economic gains and long-term social and environmental destruction through proper fisheries regulations because the short-term economic drivers of overfishing also hurt economic sustainability. 

To correct the incentive structure, the study suggests the establishment of harvest rights through catch shares, cooperatives, or territorial use rights for fisheries (TURFs).


The United Nations applies the three pillars of sustainability to its development initiatives. Today, the U.N. plan includes Sustainable Development Goals. However, the U.N.'s goals have been criticized for being too simple to render weak, impractical, or altogether meaningless. Others argue the U.N.'s goals would be better met if each goal focused on a single pillar.

However, based on public perception of the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, the U.N.'s work to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals appears to be successful considering all three pillars. In fact, public feedback indicated the U.N.'s goals relatively equally represented each pillar. 

Since even consideration of all three pillars is fundamental to proper implementation of the three pillars of sustainability, public sentiments indicate the U.N. is successfully implementing the three pillars framework to its Sustainable Development Goals.

The Bottom Line

Sustainability encompasses the entire supply chain of a business, requiring accountability from the primary level, through the suppliers, all the way to the retailers. 

Producing something sustainably becomes a competitive edge for supplying multinational corporations could reconfigure some of the global supply lines that have developed based solely on low-cost production. 

Of course, that scenario depends on how strongly corporations embrace sustainability and whether it is a true change of direction or just lip service.

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