In the guide below, we outline what sustainability is.
We include a general definition, explain some of the different pillars, as well as examples goals & targets
We also link to other potentially useful resources on different aspects of sustainability.
What Is Sustainability? – Definition, & Core Components
Definitions For Sustainability Can Vary
Definitions for sustainability vary.
There Can Be Debate Over Other Aspects Of Sustainability Too
There can be debate or disagreement in different industries on what sustainable practices should be, and what the main goals (i.e. desired outcomes) of these sustainable practices should be.
The same disagreements/debate can happen for concepts with some relation to sustainability, such corporate social responsibility.
The fundamental reason this might happen is because different groups and individuals have different interests and beliefs, and they will promote or prioritise what they value or believe in.
For example, what a business owner values or finds most important (e.g. business interests, economic interests, etc), might be different to that of a social activist (who values certain social interests), and might be different again to an environmental activist (who values certain environmental interests).
A General Definition For Sustainability
Although definitions for sustainability can vary, there might be some common components to a general definition for sustainability.
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
This may take into account things such as a sustainable consumption rate, and not degrading the environment past a certain point
– Considering the needs of present generations, without compromising the needs of future generations
– Balancing goals and requirements across the different areas of sustainability
Such as environmental sustainability (and environmental degradation), resource management, social sustainability and responsibility, and economic sustainability
The Different Pillars Of Sustainability – Environmental, Resource Management, Social, & Economic Sustainability
Examples Of Different Targets/Goals Across The Different Pillars Of Sustainability
There can be different ways to achieve improvements in sustainability, with different goals/targets for each pillar of sustainability.
Some examples of different environmental sustainability targets/goals might be:
– Reducing water pollution
– Reducing outdoor air pollution
– Reducing land degradation and land/soil pollution
– Reducing greenhouse gas emissions (the type of energy, as well as the total energy used, can play a large role in this)
Some examples of different sustainable resource management targets/goals might be:
– Sourcing resources that come from a sustainable supply chain, or that are produced in a sustainable way
– Using resources more efficiently during production or consumption (like for example using water more efficiently across different sectors)
– 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 (& social responsibility) targets/goals might be:
– Ensuring all workers have basic work rights
– Ensuring all workers have safe working conditions, and workplaces meet basic health and safety standards
Part of this might involve minimising or eliminating health or safety risks
A few examples are implementing safer operating procedures in construction and physical labor roles, and safely managing potentially hazardous materials like asbestos in demolition/construction
– Ensuring consumers have a basic level of protection in the products and services they use
Like for example eliminating chemicals and substances that could cause health and safety issues
– Protecting general public health and safety
Such as minimising waste pollution at the production stage, which can get into water sources and the environment, and impact public health
For example, waste water being dumped into water sources, air pollution, plastic waste breaking down into micro plastics, and so on
– Working with specific communities
Such as helping to build local mining communities affected by mining activity in lower income regions of the world
Some examples of economic sustainability targets/goals might be:
– The ability to make and maintain a profit for businesses
– The ability to for producers to remain competitive in the market place against competitors (especially for sustainable vs non sustainable competitors), and potentially even grow market share
– Affordability for consumers
– Contribution to the overall economy
We put together a separate guide discussing economic growth and whether it can be decoupled from different aspects of sustainability – Can Economic Growth Be Sustainable?
Sustainability Still Needs To Be Balanced With Other Objectives
Sustainability is only one aspect or objective to consider in the production of goods and services.
Other aspects or objectives that need to be balanced alongside sustainability might be:
– Products and services need to be functional and effective, and meet a certain level of performance
They need to practically be able to do what they are designed to do (i.e. meet certain performance criteria), in a safe and effective way
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 functions or perform in other ways
Another example is that electrical grid needs to be able to deliver electricity in a consistent and stable way, across all hours of the day
Another example is that a vehicle needs to have a certain amount of range (in terms of the distance it can drive), and refuelling or powering up needs to be practical
– Products and services need to be able to compete with other products and services in a reasonably ‘free market’
i.e. there needs to be a demand for these products and services, and they should be appealing to consumers vs other products and services on the market
One example of this might be a car.
Consumers might look for a range of things from a car separate to sustainability, such as affordability, design, suitability for 1 to 2 people OR a larger family, durability, reliability, ease of maintenance, meeting the aesthetic requirements of consumers, and more
Some consumers may simply want a specific established brand or model of car
– Sustainable ideas and concepts need to be able to be practically implemented in reality
Some sustainable ideas and concepts look good in the research and development stage, but may have practical, logistical, technical and other miscellaneous challenges or problems that are too significant to overcome when it comes to actually implementing that idea in reality
* External Factors Impacting The Market
Having outlined the above points, some argue that some of them aren’t relevant, as the government ultimately influences the market with legislation, regulations, subsidies and different schemes and programs, across different industries, and for different products and services.
So, each industry, and specific product or service, needs it’s own assessment in this regard, to determine how much these factors are having an impact, and what the outcome of that impact is.
Examples Of Sustainability Based Concepts
There’s a range of concepts that have been developed that might help analyse different aspects of sustainability.
As the name suggests though, concepts might provide general information only, and comprehensive and more individualized/specific analysis is required to obtain more reliable data.
But, a few examples of guides where we discuss different sustainability based concepts are:
Lifecycle assessments are an example of a conceptual tool that can be used to measure and evaluate the sustainability footprint of different things.
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, and also when sustainability principles and practices are introduced to various parts of society.
Just a few examples of those criticisms can include, but aren’t limited to:
– Some sustainable practices might reduce quality of life in some ways
One example is where sustainable products and services are more expensive, and this reduces a consumer’s disposable income for other purchases
Another example is where some sustainable practices lead to more intensive or physically demanding labor
– Some sustainable practices might restrict or limit certain freedoms (like freedom of choice)
Like for example where certain products and services are mandated, and other products and services are restricted or banned
– It can be for difficult different groups to agree on what sustainability means, and what it’s goals and desired outcome should be
– Some argue that sustainability concepts and principles impact developing countries the most
This is because restrictions and regulations (relating to sustainability) on production and consumption can impact economic activity and opportunity in these countries the most
Sustainability vs ESG vs CSR
1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ Resources