What is Sustainability?

Sustainability. Everybody has heard of the word, but what does it mean? This article answers the question – what is sustainability?

Sustainability is enormous. It is focussed on transforming our societies, our economies and the environment we live within. Sustainability aims to reach a compromise between three often contradictory aims: societal development, economic growth and environmental conservation. Since its modern inception in 1987, the speed of growth of the concept has been remarkable. It has been widely adopted as a policy goal by businesses, international agencies and in the political realm. Sustainability is a force for change.


The arc of sustainability is long. Sustainability is big, complicated and tied into everything. Business has a big role to play in this. The necessary revolution that will take businesses trajectory from one of unsustainability to one of sustainability will be similarly transformational to that of the industrial revolution. This will be a tremendous accomplishment. But it will not be easy. There are enormous barriers that must be overcome and obstacles to be transcended. The arc of sustainability is long, but it bends towards success. It is the necessary revolution. Incredible things are happening. These will be discussed in subsequent posts.

Some businesses and established political actors are scared of change. They cling to the past for fear of the future. What excites me is the voluntary action by business leaders who are making their operations more sustainable. There are also farsighted politicians using the political process to drive sustainable change. There is an exciting opportunity to use sustainability to create a better future and to build a better world. This is an exciting time to be working in sustainability.

Defining Sustainability

Sustainability has been defined differently by different people at different times. We will now look into these definitions.

The Brundtland Report

The Brundtland Report is the most important event in the modern incarnation of sustainability. It is the event above all others which catalysed the most change. It set the wheels of the necessary revolution in motion. It was a significant turning point in the journey of sustainability, from niche to mainstream.


The primary aim of The Brundtland Report was to meet the needs of developing countries, by reducing poverty. In calling for poverty reduction, The Brundtland Report added an important new intra-generational equity element to sustainable development. The Brundtland Report stated that economic growth should take a new form, which is less harmful to the environment and does not deplete natural resources.

The Brundtland Report secured wide public exposure for sustainable development. It firmly established sustainable development on the international political agenda. The farsighted leaders managed to bridge the previously unbridgeable gap between developed and developing countries and between conservationists and business executives. Their achievement was remarkable and remains a major point of departure in the journey of sustainability.

Daly: Three conditions for sustainability

Another important definition of sustainability was advanced by Herman Daly in 1991. It is a more precise definition than The Brundtland Report provided. It includes the three conditions that societies need to achieve, in order to be considered truly sustainable. These are measurable and as we can see from looking at the text below, we are moving towards these targets but we are still a long way off.  daly-jpeg

Elkington: Triple bottom line

John Elkington made a major contribution to sustainability with his 1997 work Cannibals With Forks; The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. In this work he introduces the linked concepts of the ‘triple bottom line’ and ‘People, Planet & Profit.’ John Elkington delivers a siren call, warning businesses that: “to refuse the challenge implied by the triple bottom line is to risk extinction.” With stunning prose and massive amounts of information, John Elkington lays down a roadmap for how a sustainable capitalism transition could and should take place. Crucially, John Elkington lays to rest any fears that sustainability could be tainted by anti-capitalist infiltrators. John Elkington writes from a pro-business perspective and lets the reader know that business, more than governments or NGOs will be in the driving seat for sustainability. Importantly, John leaves the reader with what the DNA of a sustainable corporation should look like and how a sustainability audit should be applied. This is a tremendous book, it is highly worth reading and as I have said, John Elkington has made a major contribution to sustainability with this work.


Purvis & Grainger: Sustainable Development Geographical Perspectives

Purvis and Grainger provide a geographical critique of sustainability in their 2004 work. This was a collaborative effort by geographers at the University of Leeds. Despite being a seemingly obvious fit, geographical perspectives had been neglected in research into sustainable development. That was put to rest, with this stunning 339 page work. Purvis, Grainger and the other contributors make the case that because of geography’s distinctive preoccupation with  space and place, that a geographical perspective brings a new dimension to sustainable development. As the text below demonstrates, we cannot ignore spatial inequalities in sustainable development. Spatial inequalities then, should be seen as on par with intra-generational and inter-generational equity issues. Two things are clear from reading Sustainable Development Geographical Perspectives. One is that broader geographical input into the sustainability debate is welcome. Secondly, that an extended definition of sustainable development; one which includes a spatial perspective can turn the Brundtland formula for sustainability into a powerful tool for change in the present.


Mainwaring: We First

Simon Mainwaring is not a sustainability or environmental management scientist. This is probably why he has written one of the most elucidating critiques of sustainability that I have come across. We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World is a truly stunning work. With a background in branding, advertising and social media Simon Mainwaring cuts through the noise and gets straight to the heart of the issue. How can we build a better world and how can we do this as quickly as possible? Simon’s critique covers what he sees as an overly narrow approach to sustainability in use today. Simon delivers an alarming, but necessary wakeup call that: “without a more profound and comprehensive vision of sustainability, capitalism will die an untimely death.” Simon builds an approach which suggests that sustainability should move on from just focusing on enduring and lasting to a vision for sustainability which is about life giving. This is a bold vision for a deeper meaning of sustainability and Simon should be praised for the way he prosecutes this argument. The interjection of moral and ethical elements into the sustainability debate is a welcome one, as is the inclusion of the role of consumers. This leads to a more usable and also measurable definition of sustainability. Overall, Simon has produced a tremendous book, it is very readable and packed full of useful information for how you can help to build a better world. Because as we have seen, this has never been more important than it is right now.


What we have learned

We have covered quite a bit in this short article. We learned that sustainability is a transformational process focussed on changing our societies, our economies and the environment we live in for the better. We learned that sustainability boldly aims to reach a compromise between three often contradictory aims: societal development, economic growth and environmental conservation. From everything that we have gone through, we can see that although far from perfect, with regards to its stated aim, sustainability is doing a pretty good job.  We then went through some of the ways in which sustainability has been defined, from its inception, right up until the present day. What we have learned is that Sustainability is a complex concept. It requires balance, it requires trade-offs and it is very, very important work. It is business friendly and it is about helping people and looking after the planet. One thing is clear though, it is that sustainability is not really about sustaining the world that we have now; it is about building a better world. What could be more exciting than that?

We will learn more about sustainability in subsequent posts.

Thank you for reading

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