Defining Sustainability

Definitions, Concepts and Applications of Sustainability
By Marco Tavanti, Ph.D.
September 30, 2010

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is an evolving concept, which makes it difficult to define it. In theory, sustainability is nothing more than “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In practice, sustainability is a collective concern for the welfare of our children and the future generations.

Sustainability is more than “being green.” It is also demonstrating social, financial and local/global responsibility through a renewed concern for the environment and an institutional commitment to make a difference.

At DePaul University, sustainability embodies our collective efforts of embracing the environmental and social challenges of our times for building a sustainable learning community showing “the way of wisdom” emerging from our Catholic, Vincentian, and Urban mission.

The Concept of Sustainability

Sustainability, like other big concepts like democracy, development and globalization, has become one of the most ubiquitous, contested, and indispensable concepts of our time.

There are more than 500 definitions of sustainability. In general the term refers to the capacity to endure. In ecology sustainability describes how "biological systems remain diverse and productive over time." For humans it is the "potential for long-term maintenance of well-being, which in turn depends on the maintenance of the natural world and natural resources" (Bromley 2008)

Practically all disciplines fields have some expansion, specification or applications in relation to sustainability. Regardless of the diverse definitions of sustainability, the concepts includes the fundamental agreements that a) Living on the Earth has environmental limits; b) Human beings have the responsibility of preventing or cleaning up pollution; and that c) The economy, society and environment are interconnected and interdependent.

The most frequently cited definition of sustainability (actually of "sustainable development") is by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, also known as the Brundtland Report) in 1987 which emerged from the growing concerns that the degradation of the environment along with population growth would compromise the ability of future generations to expand their prosperity and economic justice.

As the most commonly quoted definition, the report defines "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs." (WCED 1987).

It contains within it two key concepts: a) The concepts of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and: b) The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environments ability to meet present and future needs.

Other Definitions and Specifications of Sustainable Development
"Sustainable development involves devising a social and economic system, which ensures that these goals are sustained, i.e. that real incomes rise, that educational standards increase that the health of the nation improves, that the general quality of life is advanced" (Pearce, Makandia & Barbier 1989)

"Lack of a precise definition of the term 'sustainable development' is not all bad. It has allowed a considerable consensus to evolve in support of the idea that it is both morally and economically wrong to treat the world as a business in liquidation." (Daly 1991)

"No single approach to 'sustainable development' or framework is consistently useful, given the variety of scales inherent in different conservation programmes and different types of societies and institutional structures" (DeWalle, Nikolopoulou-Tamvakli, Heinen, 1993)

"Sustainable development, sustainable growth, and sustainable use have been used interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. They are not. Sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms: nothing physical can grow indefinitely. Sustainable use, is only applicable to renewable resources. Sustainable development is used in this strategy to mean: improving the quality of human life whilst living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems" (IUCN, UNEP, WWF 1991)

"Development is about realizing resource potential, Sustainable development of renewable natural resources implies respecting limits to the development process, even though these limits are adjustable by technology. The sustainability of technology may be judged by whether it increases production, but retains it other environmental and other limits" (Holdgate 1993)

Sustainable development is concerned with the development of a society where the costs of development are not transferred to future generations, or at least an attempt is made to compensate for such costs (Pearce 1993)

"Most societies want to achieve economic development to secure higher standards of living, now and for future generations. They also seek to protect and enhance their environment, now and for their children. Sustainable development tries to reconcile these two objectives." (HMSO 1995)

Sustainability Related Definitions Across Subjects and Fields

Sustainable University

“A higher education institution, as a whole or as a part, that addresses, involves and promotes, on a regional or a global level, the minimization of environmental, economics, societal, and health negative effects in the use of their resources in order to fulfill its main functions of teaching, research, outreach & partnership, and stewardship among others as a way to helping society make the transition to sustainable life styles .” (Velazquez et al. 2006, p. 812)

 A sustainable campus community is ‘‘the one that acts upon its local and global responsibilities to protect and enhance the health and well being of humans and ecosystems. It actively engages the knowledge of the university community to address the ecological and social challenges that we face now and in the future.” (Cole 2003, p. 30)

"In a sustainable learning community, the community teaches us to value and nurture that which sustains us because the good life, in the context of sustainability, values the rights and needs of current and future generations to flourish. Accordingly, the balancing of economic viability with ecological health and human well-being should be evident in how we define and provide for the basic needs of our community. From this perspective, core university functions that traditionally are viewed as providing logistical support for the academic mission become an active and intentional part of the curriculum." (Kelly N.D.) 

Sustainable Education

Sustainable education involves active participation to create economic and social development programs and goals that will help balance and generate long standing improvements of a nation’s basic quality of life standards and needs. This can help generate empowerment to the nation’s citizens. (UNESCO, Education for Sustainable Development)

“Education for sustainability is a lifelong learning process that leads to an informed and involved citizenry having the creative problem-solving skills, scientific and social literacy, and commitment to engage in responsible individual and cooperative actions. These actions will help ensure an environmentally sound and economically prosperous future.” (US Global Change Information Center)

“Education for sustainable human development as educational practice that results in the enhancement of human well-being, conceived in terms of the expansion of individuals' agency, capabilities and participation in democratic dialogue, both for now and for future generations […]. Incorporating Amartya Sen's human capability approach as the basis of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) will provide the clarity of direction and purpose needed for the transformation of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.” (Landorf, Doscher and Rocco 2008).

Sustainable City

"Sustainable urban development is improving the quality of life in a city, including ecological, cultural, political, institutional, social and economic components without leaving a burden on the future generations. A burden which is the result of a reduced natural capital and an excessive local debt. Our aim is that the flow principle, that is based on an equilibrium of material and energy and also financial input/output, plays a crucial role in all future decisions upon the development of urban areas." (URBAN21 Conference, Berlin, 2000)

Sustainable Communities 
"The sustainability of a community depends on creating and maintaining its economic and environmental health, promoting social equity, and fostering broad-based citizen participation in planning and implementation. Communities that engage citizens and institutions to develop sustainability principles and a collective vision for the future and that apply an integrative approach to environmental, economic and social goals are generally likely to be more successful. [...] Job creation, energy use, housing, transportation, education and health are considered complementary parts of the whole. Since all issues are interconnected they must be addressed as a system. The process includes: broad and diverse involvement of citizens the creation of a collective vision for the future; the development of principles of sustainability; an inventory of existing assets and resources and additional assets that would benefit the community; clear, measurable goals; the development of community indicators to evaluate progress; open and transparent communication; early, visible results; celebration of success. Sustainability is a process of continuous improvement so communities constantly evolve and make changes to accomplish their goals."

Sustainable Community Development

"Sustainable community development is the ability to make development choices which respect the relationship between the three "E's"-economy, ecology, and equity: Economy - Economic activity should serve the common good, be self-renewing, and build local assets and self-reliance. Ecology - Human are part of nature, nature has limits, and communities are responsible for protecting and building natural assets. Equity - The opportunity for full participation in all activities, benefits, and decision-making of a society." (Mountain Association for Community Economic Development) 

Sustainable development within a community redefines prosperity. It weighs the value of community character, quality of life, and the environment along side economic development. Sustained development seeks what could be considered true development, recognizing that bigger isn't always better. It understands the importance of long-term stewardship of community resources. Healthy communities pursue self-reliance and a more democratic approach to decision-making, placing community interests ahead of personal ones. Approaches that stress diversity, resilience, and individual approaches are favored in true sustainable development. (Suite101: Community Sustainable Development: Eight Steps to Take Towards Promoting Economic Renewal Alan Sorum, October 8, 2008)

Sustainable Food

Food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage for the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities (Meet Green)

Sustainable Agriculture

"Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term: Satisfy human food and fiber needs; Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; Sustain the economic viability of farm operations; Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole." (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition)

“Sustainable agriculture is a system that can evolve indefinitely toward greater human utility, greater efficiency of resource use and a balance with the environment which is which is favorable to humans and most other species.” (Harwood 1990)

“We thus define agricultural sustainability as the ability to maintain productivity, whether as a field or farm or nation. Where productivity is the output of valued product per unit of resource input” (Conway & Barbier 1990)

Sustainable Design

"Sustainable design is the set of perceptual and analytic abilities, ecological wisdom, and practical wherewithal essential to making things that fit in a world of microbes, plants, animals, and entropy. In other words, (sustainable design) is the careful meshing of human purposes with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world, and careful study of those patterns and flows to inform human purposes." (Orr, 1992)

Sustainable Society

"A sustainable society is one which satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations." (Lester R. Brown, Founder and President, Worldwatch Institute)

Sustainable Value

"As a value, it refers to giving equal weight in your decisions to the future as well as the present. You might think of it as extending the Golden Rule through time, so that you do unto future generations as you would have them do unto you." (Robert Gilman, Director, Context Institute "Sustainability is equity over time")

Sustainable Processes

"A transition to sustainability involves moving from linear to cyclical processes and technologies. The only processes we can rely on indefinitely are cyclical; all linear processes must eventually come to an end." (Dr. Karl Henrik-Robert, MD, founder of The Natural Step, Sweden)

Sustainable Actions

"Actions are sustainable if: There is a balance between resources used and resources regenerated. Resources are as clean or cleaner at end use as at beginning. The viability, integrity, and diversity of natural systems are restored and maintained. They lead to enhanced local and regional self-reliance. They help create and maintain community and a culture of place. Each generation preserves the legacies of future generations." (David McCloskey, Professor of Sociology, Seattle University)

Sustainability Issues

"Clean air, clean water, safety in city parks, low-income housing, education, child care, welfare, medical care, unemployment (insurance), transportation, recreation/cultural centers, open space, wetlands..." (Hazel Wolf, Seattle Audubon Society)

Sustainability Ethics

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." (Aldo Leopold, A Land Ethic, from Sand County Almanac)

Sustainability in Commerce

"Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do. " (Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce)

Sustainable Economy

A sustainable economy is one in which resources are not used up faster than nature renews them. It also marks a thriving climate for business that balances environmental, social, and economic vitality. (Oregon Environmental Council)

Cultural Sustainability

Cultural sustainability is 'developing, renewing and maintaining human cultures that create positive, enduring relationships with other peoples and the natural world'. In the words of Nelson Mandela,"Like truth, culture and creativity are enduring." (Marion Council)

Environmental Sustainability

"Sustainability means using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs." (Andy Duncan)

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability occurs in formal and informal processes and relationships actively supporting the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and livable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life. Salvaris, M., Burke, T., Pidgeon, J. and Kelman, S. (2000)

Sustainable Micro-enterprise

"Supporting the sustainable development of microenterprises through financial markets requires self-sustainable financial institutions. Self-sustainability refers to the long-term ability to meet goals. For financial institutions and for firms, this requires private profitability: a return on equity, net of subsidy, that exceeds the private opportunity cost of resources." (Schreiner and Yaron, 2001).

Government Sustainability

"A sustainable society needs local and central government to lead the way by consuming differently, and by planning effectively and efficiently in order to integrate sustainable practices in the services it provides to citizens, and throughout its estates and workforce." (Government Sustainability: The Business Magazine for a Sustainable Government).

Sustainable Technologies

Sustainable technologies use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life. (EnviroMetal)

Sustainable Values

Blake D. Ratner challenges to the sociology of development advocating his view that sustainability as a dialogue of values--a pluralistic conception of sustainability not as a fixed end but as a dialogue of values, a view that accentuates the need to identify and strengthen social institutions to manage value conflict at different scales." (Blake D. Ratner)

"Values are an integral part of Education for Sustainable Development. Understanding your own values, the values of the society you live in, and the values of others around the world is a central part of educating for a sustainable future." (UNESCO)

"Sustainability is a balance between the financial, human, and environmental. It is about living your values and acting with integrity, responsibility and generosity. It is about being in a community of discussion, dialogue and action - because no person or company is an island and everything is interconnected." (Sustainable Brands)

Other sustainability definitions

Read more definitions of sustainability and sustainable development at