The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Despite what you may think, protecting the environment is not the only tenet of sustainability. In fact, 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 excellent quality of life is standard. They have an unsullied, thriving environment, an acceptable degree of economic welfare, and a sound amount of social satisfaction.

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

Fig. 1
Image credit: Purvis, B., Mao, Y. & Robinson, D. Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustain Sci 14, 681–695 (2019).

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 in regards to the limits of economic growth, wealth generation, and social justice. The current version of the term was introduced in the early 1970s, where it quickly became a mainstream way of describing a the limited resources of the world.

With the rise of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s increased awareness of extensive environmental ruin became a point on which to question the modern growth-based economy and it’s 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 in order 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.

Exploring The Three Pillars of Sustainability

According to the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), the goal of sustainability is to, “create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

This means that sustainable approaches need to consider the fundamental interplays between actions that affect the environment, society, and the economy. 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 one of these pillars and how actions take 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 that are related to the environmental pillar. When a company decides to go net zero, that is an example of addressing the environmental pillar.

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 within it 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.

Tree pillar of sustainability with environment largest
Image source

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 and environmental pollutant 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. In fact, if things we don’t change our habits of consumption, there are resources that 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 wellbeing of a country, community, or organization can be maintained in the long term.

To do this, we need to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. By focusing on issues like human health, environmental justice, education, and sustainable communities, we can help to 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. Are there safe and healthy working conditions in the factories making your products? Do you pay fair wages? Do you ensure that no child labor 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 that 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.

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. 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 solutions that are good for both business and the planet have started to emerge. Governments have started offering incentives and tax breaks for green business practices. The reduction of waste and increased usage of recycled materials in production have padded bottom line for many businesses, while also reducing environmental impact. 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 for those companies to ensure that natural resources stick around for the future, and to find new, sustainable ways of conducting business that won’t harm the long-term success of the company.

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. There are steps each one of us can take 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 do work with all types of organizations to help them create more resilient, future-proof environments.

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One response to “The Three Pillars of Sustainability”

  1. […] like the rest of sustainable fashion, sustainable footwear must meet all three pillars of sustainability. Firstly, the factory that makes the footwear must treat its employees ethically. Secondly, all […]