Environmental vs Economic vs Social Sustainability: Comparison, & Differences

It’s common to hear about environmental sustainability, but, it’s also important to consider the other aspects or pillars of sustainability.

A complete perspective on sustainability generally involves looking at three key areas/pillars – the environmental, economic and social.

Some may consider resource depletion as a fourth, whilst some may include it under the environmental pillar.

In this guide, we look at what each of these areas might involve, as well as how they relate to each other.

We also give examples of each.

 

Summary – Environmental vs Economic vs Social Sustainability

What Is Sustainability In General?

Overall, sustainability might be defined as the ability to maintain something at a certain level, whilst taking into account the needs of both present and future generations.

It might involve environmental, economic, and social factors and pillars.

We’ve written more about what sustainability might be and the different considerations for general sustainability in this guide.

Although we don’t discuss these things in this guide, practical factors, as well as tradeoffs and limitations can play a role in sustainability as well.

 

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability might generally take into consideration:

1. Environmental and ecosystem degradation, along with consideration for wild life, micro organisms, and biodiversity

2. The sustainable management of resources, and resource depletion

 

Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability might generally take into consideration the ability to sustain economic and financial goals at:

1. The macro level i.e. on the level of an entire economy, and entire industries

2. The micro level i.e. on the level of individual businesses and individuals

 

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability might generally take into consideration the ability to support certain social goals or social criteria at:

1. The macro level i.e. for wider society

2. The micro level i.e. for individuals and specific groups of people

Social sustainability is sometimes referred to as social responsibility, or corporate social responsibility in the case to companies having a responsibility to society in the way they do business.

 

How Each Area & The Different Factors Relate To Each Other

The reason that each of these factors are important are that firstly that societies are composed of a collection of individuals and groups

Humans developed an economy to allocate scarce resources between individuals within a society, and groups

The economy depends on natural resources as the basis for a lot of economic production (which humans derive some of their needs and wants from, and use to live their everyday lives)

And finally, the natural environment is not only something that humans use and live in, but, is something that has a lot of key functions and processes that are important to all areas of life (like supporting ecosystems, dictating weather and climate, and so on)

Because of the relationship between the three factors, each one requires consideration when making decisions regarding sustainability

There can be incentives, tradeoffs and dependencies between one and another factor

One of the thousands of examples of these tradeoff based questions, is whether economic growth can be environmentally sustainable

 

What Is General Sustainability?

Read more in this guide about general sustainability, what it is, the different pillars, potential goals, and more.

 

What Is Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability involves managing two key issues:

1. The pollution or degradation of the natural environment and it’s ecosystems

The concept of planetary boundaries is one concept that looks at different areas of environmental degradation

An activity might be environmentally sustainable from a degradation perspective as long as it doesn’t lead to degradation of any one area of the environment (such as land, water, air, etc) past a certain critical point.

There’s usually also consideration for wildlife and biodiversity when looking at environmental ecosystems

 

2. The sustainable management of resources, and the depletion of natural resources

We’ve put together a guide on the sustainable management of resources here.

The concept of ecological foot-printing also looks at resource use, and there are also other ways to look at resource depletion levels both now, and also into the future

Generally, a task involves the sustainable management of resources when natural resources can be renewed or replenished at an equal or greater rate than the consumption rate (so that a particular natural resource doesn’t reach depletion or scarcity levels)

 

Examples Of Environmental Sustainability

There are many different areas/indicators of environmental sustainability.

There’s also many ways to measure each environmental sustainability indicator.

As just one example:

Air pollution is an indicator of environmental sustainability

– But, there’s multiple different types of air pollutants

– A measurement of air pollution might involve the concentration of one of these pollutants in the air, in a specific geographic location, on a specific day. Air Quality Index is a way to measure air pollution and air quality in any one area

 

A few other examples of indicators of environmental sustainability might include water pollution, land degradation, levels of toxicity from general waste pollution, and more.

 

What Is Economic Sustainability?

Economic sustainability might generally take into consideration the ability to sustain economic and financial goals at:

1. The macro level i.e. on the level of an entire economy, and entire industries

At the macro level, there is consideration for the impact of sustainable practices on economic growth, level of unemployment, inflation, competition and free markets, and other macro economic factors

We’ve put together a guide specifically on whether economic growth might be sustainable or not

There may also be consideration for industries as a whole, such as which industries use the most water, use the most energy and electricity, and produce the most emissions

 

2. The micro level i.e. on the level of individual businesses and individuals

At the micro level, there is consideration for the impact of sustainable practices on factors such as business profitability, business risk, product and service quality and safety, labor, and employees, amongst other factors

 

Examples Of Economic Sustainability

A few examples of economic sustainability goals could include:

– On the macro level this could involve maintaining a certain level of economic growth over a certain time period

– On the micro level, this could involve maintaining a certain level of revenue or profit for a business, OR, it could involve maintaining a certain level of wages or employment for an individual

 

A few examples of the different ways economic sustainability might be measured might include, but aren’t limited to:

– The level of employment (% of the population)

– The level of economic growth (GDP)

– Whether certain activities are profitable (when considering net revenue and costs/investment of resources)

– Whether certain regulations or taxes disincentivize activity that contributes to a successful economy

 

What Is Social Sustainability?

Social sustainability might generally take into consideration the ability to support certain social goals or social criteria at:

1. The macro level i.e. for wider society, where some social criteria might be considered largely agreed upon

2. The micro level i.e. for individuals and specific groups of people , where some social criteria might be important to only some people or groups

 

Examples Of Social Sustainability

An example social sustainability on the macro level might be:

– A society may have a goal to maintain certain basic working conditions and basic working rights for all workers.

To uphold these conditions and rights, laws and regulations might be put in place that place requirements on employers to make sure employees have access to these conditions and rights

 

An example of social sustainability on the micro level might be:

– An individual might have a preference to buy a product made in a specific way, that is important to their individual beliefs and values. 

To make sure they do this, a consumer may choose to buy a product from a company that uses an independent third party certification that includes the necessary social criteria as part of it’s certification scheme

One example of this may be when a consumer buys organic cotton that has social criteria and other criteria as part of it’s certification, and another example might be when investors take into consideration corporate social responsibility in their investment decisions

Another common example might be the importance of certain animal rights and animal welfare to specific groups

 

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