Sustainability Frameworks

The Integrated Frameworks and Pillars of Sustainability
By Marco Tavanti, Ph.D.
February 13, 2010

The environmental, social and economic frameworks of sustainability needs to find an integrated approach into the personal, organizational and institutional commitments to make a world a better place. Sustainability is a challenging but necessary concept for integrating three distinct worldviews: 
1) Naturalism: The recognition that human activities are limited and and unfold within natural systems.
2) Humanism: The need for working for the common good seeking deeper meaning and purposefulness in our lives.
3) Rationalism: The need for economically efficient utilization of resources. 
While the rational-economic sustainability of organizations is a dominant and essential elements in the welfare of people, organizations and institutions, it must be framed within our personal-collective values, purpose-mission and local-regional-global relations. In other words, the economic / financial capital must be seen as integrated withing the social and natural capitals and constrains. An exclusive focus on rational-economic
optimization of the personal-organizational-institutional enterprise will ultimately limit long term viability and wealth generation. 
The personal, organizational and institutional alignment of values, capacity and commitment are (and should be) at the heart of an authentic and integrated sustainability plan that goes beyond "green-washing."  The tension between the economic, social and natural frameworks and worldviews is a positive synergy for building sustainable learning communities, organizations, families and societies.
These relation and integration of the sustainability frameworks (or pillars) have at the core of the sustainability debate since its original definition of "sustainable development" in the Brundtland Report Our Common Future. This definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[1] has been revolving on the idea of “needs” of humanity (especially for the world's poor), “limitations” of technologies serving human progress and “interdependence” with non-renewable natural resources.[2]
A holistic definition of sustainability requires that we see the world as a system—a system that connects space, time, resources, economies, peoples, organizations, institutions and values. In general, the concepts and practices of sustainability are centered on the concerns and efforts to maintain and enhance environmental, social and economic resources in order to meet the needs of current and future generations. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) refers to sustainability as the mutual reinforcing of economic development, social development, and environmental protection integrated by the institutional frame.[3] The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous People (UNPFII) has emphasized the importance of cultural diversity and spiritual values as fundamental dimensions to the understanding and achievement of sustainability.[4]

In summary the dimensions (or pillars) of sustainability are:
Environmental Dimension – Environmental and ecological sustainability involves the conservation of biodiversity, attaining atmospheric balance, productivity of soil as well as other systems of natural environment. Therefore environmental sustainability implies the conservation and responsible utilization of the natural capital. This means that the extraction of renewable resources should not exceed the rate at which they are renewed, and the absorptive capacity to the environment to assimilate wastes should not be exceeded. It also implies that the extraction of non-renewable resources should be minimized and should not exceed agreed minimum strategic levels.[5]
Social Dimension – Social sustainability implies the promotion of social justice via equitable resource allocation, poverty alleviation, and adequate access to social services, such as education, nutrition, health and others to all members of the society, especially the poor and marginalized sectors of society.[6]
Economic Dimension: Economic sustainability occurs when social and environmentally sustainable development is also financially feasible. It implies providing economic welfare at present and in the future, while paying more attention to “social capital” of human development and the “natural capital” or natural resources, the bases for the economic system, such as plants, soil, animals, fish, air and water.[7]
Institutional Dimension:  identified by the institutional capacity, willingness, cooperation and integration of sustainability into mainstream policy mechanisms (instead of being an environmental “add-ons”). The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has introduced the “institutional” dimension as the fourth sphere for identifying the indicators, methods and measurements of sustainability.[8]
Cultural Dimension: Although some prefer to consider this dimension within the social sphere, it is important to recognize its distinctive characteristics in relation to the values and worldviews of humanity (indigenous peoples of the world). The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous People reminds us that culture, and cultural diversity in particular, are necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. In this vision, cultural diversity is the fifth dimension of sustainability.[9]
Values Dimension: The values and spirituality of individuals and communities are the driving force for building organizational cultures and institutional policies fostering societal, economic and environmental sustainability.  Values are the of the roots of development understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence.[10]

[1] World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford paperbacks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
[2] United Nations. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987. Retrieved: 2010-02-13
[4] See the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous People (UNPFII) reports at:
[5] There are many publications on environmental sustainability but these are particularly relevant for the understanding of this dimension in relation to environmental policy, science and development: Rockwood, Larry L., Ronald E. Stewart, and Thomas Dietz. Foundations of Environmental Sustainability: The Coevolution of Science and Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. See also: Steininger, Karl W., and Mario Cogoy. The Economics of Global Environmental Change: International Cooperation for Sustainability. New horizons in environmental economics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2006.
[6] Docherty, Peter, Mari Kira, and Abraham B. Shani. Creating Sustainable Work Systems: Developing Social Sustainability. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. See also: Polèse, Mario, and Richard E. Stren. The Social Sustainability of Cities: Diversity and the Management of Change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. And also this on sustainable communities: Marsden, Terry. Sustainable Communities. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2008.
[7] Anand, Sudhir, and Amartya Sen. 2000. "Human Development and Economic Sustainability". World Development : the Multi-Disciplinary International Journal Devoted to the Study and Promotion of World Development. 28, no. 12. See also: Hardisty, Paul E. Environmental and Economic Sustainability. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, 2010.
[8] Johnson, Hazel, and Gordon Wilson. 1999. "Institutional Sustainability As Learning". Development in Practice. 9, no. 1-2: 1-2.
[9] Lewis & Clark Law School. Symposium: Indigenous Economic Development : Sustainability, Culture, and Business. Portland, OR: Lewis & Clark Law School, 2008. See also: Ehrenfeld, John. Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
[10] Murray, Paul E., and Sheran A. Murray. 2007. "Promoting Sustainability Values Within Career-Oriented Degree Programmes: A Case Study Analysis". International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 8, no. 3: 285-300. See also: Leiserowitz, Anthony A., Robert William Kates, and Thomas Parris. Sustainability Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors: A Review of Multi-National and Global Trends. [Cambridge, Mass.]: Center for International Development at Harvard University, 2004.