Environmental vs Economic vs Social Sustainability: Comparison, & Differences

It’s common to hear about environmental sustainability, but, it’s also important to consider sustainability from a complete perspective.

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

In this guide, we look at what each of economic, environmental and social sustainability might be, and how they interact with and relate to each other.

We also give examples of each.


Summary – Environmental vs Economic vs Social Sustainability

Overall, sustainability might be defined as the ability to maintain something at a certain level

It might involve environmental, economic, and social factors

Environmental sustainability might generally be concerned with environmental degradation, and resource depletion

Economic sustainability might generally be concerned with the ability to support certain economic/financial goals on the macro level (such as the economy), or the micro level (such as for the individual or the business)

Social sustainability might be the ability to support certain social goals on the macro level (for wider society and culture), or the micro level (such as for individuals)

The reason that each of these factors are important are that firstly wider society and different cultures are made of individual humans 

Humans developed an economy to allocate scarce resources

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 Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is generally concerned with managing two key issues:

1. The depletion of natural resources

And, 2. The pollution or degradation of the natural environment


Generally, a task is environmentally sustainable when natural resources can be renewed or replenished in the short term, and it doesn’t pollute or degrade the natural environment past a certain point.


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


What Is Economic Sustainability?

Economic sustainability is generally concerned with the ability to support certain economic/financial goals


Examples Of Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability can be measured on the macro level, and also the micro level.


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 involve the ability to meet social/human based goals on the macro and micro levels


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 for it’s citizens

– To maintain these working conditions, this society might create laws and regulations that place requirements on employers to provide these basic working conditions to their employees


An example social sustainability on the micro level might be:

– An individual may wish to have certain freedoms or preferences to do with what they say, what they believe, what they do for work, and their sexual orientation

– In an effort to have these freedoms and preferences honored, an individual may choose to live in a country or vote for political parties that protect these freedoms and preferences




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