What Is Sustainability? – Meaning/Definition, Pillars, Examples Of Goals, & More

In the guide below, we outline what sustainability is, including meanings and definitions, along with providing examples.

We also provide links to other potentially useful resources we’ve written on the topic of overall sustainability.


What Is Sustainability? – Definition/Meaning, & General Explanation Of Core Components

Sustainability can have a broad range of differing definitions and meanings.

Additionally, sustainable farming, and sustainable construction, building and housing, are just two examples of industries where there can be debate or disagreement on what sustainable practices should be, and what the main goals of these sustainable practices should be.

Having said that, the general meaning or definition of sustainability can have some common components to it.

Those common components might include, but aren’t limited to:

– The ability to maintain a certain level of living for a given population over a certain period of time (As just one example, a population either needs to adjust their consumption rate to match the level of supply, or supply needs to be augmented to match the consumption rate)

– Considering the needs of present generations, without compromising the needs of future generations

– Balancing goals across the different areas of overall sustainability, such as environmental sustainability, resource management, social sustainability and responsibility, and economic sustainability


Difference Between Environmental, Resource Management, Social & Economic Sustainability Pillars

In this guide, we go into more depth discussing each of these areas of sustainability


Examples Of Sustainability Targets/Goals Across The Different Pillars

Environmental Sustainability

Some examples of environmental sustainability targets/goals might include, but aren’t limited to:

– Reducing water pollution

– Reducing outdoor air pollution

– Reducing land degradation and land/soil pollution

– Reducing greenhouse gas emissions (which may be related to the type of energy, or overall energy footprint at the production stage)


Resource Management

Some examples of sustainable resource management targets/goals might include, but aren’t limited to:

– Sourcing from sustainably managed or produced resources

– Using renewable resources over non renewable resources

– Using resources more efficiently at the consumption stage

– Re-using, recycling, recovering/reclaiming, or finding alternate uses for resources that become waste, or reach the end of their lifecycle


We’ve put together a guide specifically about sustainable resource management here.


Social Sustainability & Responsibility

Some examples of social sustainability sustainability and responsibility targets/goals might include, but aren’t limited to:

– Ensuring all workers have safe working conditions, and basic working rights

– Improving work practices to improve worker health and safety standards at work

– Reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals and substances that can impact the health of workers, and also the health of consumers (asbestos materials are one example of this)

– Minimising or eliminating the production of waste pollution at the production stage, and waste pollution at the consumer stage, that can impact the health of society (such as toxic production waste, or plastic waste that breaks down into micro plastics)


Economic Sustainability 

Some examples of economic sustainability targets/goals might include, but aren’t limited to:

– Profitability & the ability to compete in the market for producers with other ‘non-sustainable’ products and services

– Affordability for consumers, and demand by consumers compared to other ‘non-sustainable’ products and services 

– Contribution to the overall economy, and a growing market share

We actually put together a guide discussing economic growth and whether it can be decoupled from different aspects of sustainability – Can Economic Growth Be Sustainable?


Sustainability Shouldn’t Compromise These Areas/Pillars Either

Sustainability still needs to be able to meet other requirements outside of what is mentioned above.

Products and services for example still need to:

– Be functional and effective, and sometimes meet a certain level of performance

They need to do what they are designed to do as a basic requirement, and for products and services that are more advanced, they need to meet certain performance criteria.

For example, a basic sustainable house should still be waterproof, draught proof, be able to regulate temperature effectively, and carry out a range of other 

A drink bottle still needs to be durable, and not prone to breakage


– Compete on the open market

One example of this might be a car.

Durability, reliability, pricing, ease and price of maintenance, and meeting the aesthetic requirements of consumers, may all be competing factors for a consumer’s car dollars


– Be practical

There can be a number of practical, logistical, technical and other miscellaneous physical or reality based challenges when a sustainable concept moves from the development and research stage, to real life production and use.

The more of these challenges a sustainable idea or concept has that can’t be addressed or are difficult to address, the less practical it might be in real life.


Having outlined these points, some may argue that government actions and subsidies/support may mean that some companies don’t have to meet some of this criteria to a certain standard for their sustainable products and services at this point in time.


Examples Of Sustainability Based Concepts

There’s many concepts that have been developed to provide more evaluation of the different aspect of sustainability.

These concepts, as the name suggest, are conceptualisations only, and more comprehensive and specific/individualised evaluations are required in many instances.

But, a few examples of guides where we discuss different sustainability based concepts are:

What Is The Carrying Capacity Of Earth Now, & In The Future?

Environmental Planetary Boundaries

Ecological Footprint Of Each Country In The World


Lifecycle Assessments

Lifecycles assessments are an example of a specific tool that can be used to measure and evaluate the sustainability footprint of different things on an individualised and specific level.

They can be quite comprehensive, and broken down into the various lifecycle stages (such as sourcing, production, transport, consumption, waste, and so on)

LCA’s can be used for products, services, individual people, whole populations, cities, countries, and more.

Read more about lifecycle assessments in this guide.


Potential Criticisms Of Sustainability

There can be a number of criticisms of sustainability as a concept, or when introduced practically to an industry or in other areas of society.

Just a few examples of those criticisms can include but aren’t limited to:

– Some sustainable practices can be argued to reduce quality of life, and individual freedom of choice

– It can be for difficult groups to agree on what sustainability means, and what it’s goals should be, in any one industry

– Some argue that sustainability concepts and principles impact developing countries the most, as restrictions and regulations on production and consumption can reduce economic opportunities for those in places where raw material sourcing and production, manufacturing, and other economic activities are outsourced




1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ Resources

2. https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/what-is-sustainability/


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