• Eirini Sampson

What's sustainability?

There is no universally accepted definition, yet so many of us have started using the term "sustainability." In fact, it was first coined 30 years ago

The first post on our "What is..." Section, we are delving deeper into the history and meaning of the widely-used term 'sustainability'


The term ‘sustainability’ is more complicated than its assigned role on social media as an easy-to-use buzzword. Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘sustainability’ as


the quality of being able to continue over a period of time.

This means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.


The lack of a universally accepted definition has created space for different perspectives on sustainability to emerge: some consider sustainability to only encompass the environment and the non-depletion of natural resources, others perceive sustainability in economic terms, while many attempt to strike a balance between all of the above.


Sustainability is often defined according to the definition of “sustainable development” which incorporates: social, economic and environmental sustainability. Sustainable development is hence defined by the robust interdependency between the three mutually reinforcing concepts. Sustainability and sustainable development are fairly new concepts which were introduced in the global arena in 1987 by the Bruntdland Commission. It was the Commission's report titled Our Common Future which gave us the above mentioned definition of sustainability and sustainable development.


Let’s take a closer look at what the three pillars of sustainability mean:


Environmental sustainability


The way that sustainability is currently used by the mainstream media tends to solely focus on the meaning of environmental sustainability. In reality, this pillar of sustainable development encompasses the concept that all of earth’s environmental systems are kept in balance while its natural resources are consumed at a rate where they are able to replenish themselves.


Social sustainability


Often treated as a separate characteristic of sustainability, mainstream (western) discourse has ignored the meaning of social sustainability which is that: communities across the globe are able to maintain their independence and have access to the resources that they require, financial and other, to meet their needs.


Economic sustainability


Universal human rights and basic necessities are attainable by all people, who have access to enough resources in order to keep their families and communities healthy and secure.


It is now become more obvious than ever that sustainability is more than a buzz-word. It is integral in ensuring that, while we attempt to mitigate and adapt to climate-change, we are able to meet an equitable future for all. This is often overlooked by the decision-makers of the western world who are often not held accountable in the global arena. The organic definition of sustainable development and the apparent interdependencies amongst the three pillars defining it are evidence of the need for specialised solutions - not a one-size-fits-all recourse. A blanket application of sustainable development goals can ultimately be...well, unsustainable, as it ignores the true meaning of sustainability which on a broader scale attempts to bring the above mentioned elements together.


Oftentimes, the misuse of the word “sustainability” has led to understandable misunderstandings by the wider public. The connection to environmental sustainability is undisputable, nevertheless, it is imperative to bear in mind that sustainability and sustainable practices should be defined by the acknowledgement of the complexity of sustainable systems.