1.3 Sustainability and Problems of Definition



Policy-makers and decision-makers working to address environmental and development issues have traditionally used the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ almost interchangeably. Both terms have at their roots the word ‘sustain’, which is used in everyday language. It is a word derived from Latin – ‘sub’ and ‘tenere’ where ‘sub’ meant under or towards and ‘tenere’ to hold or keep.

There are several detailed meanings defined in most dictionaries, depending on context. Most of them imply supporting or keeping going. ‘Keeping going’ does not of course mean the same as ‘keeping’ though some notions of sustainability appear to confuse the two. One understanding is that sustaining implies something that persists but it does not imply something that is static or unchanging. It implies something dynamic and can also imply a radical change in people’s practices rather than continuing with ‘business as usual’.

Above text sourced from The Open University on 21/02/2012 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.

There are many types of sustainability – ecological, economic, financial, social, political, and institutional, depending on what is being sustained. Moreover, definitions of sustainability vary enormously. Here is a sample of definitions of sustainability:

  • "Sustainable means using methods, systems and materials that won't deplete resources or harm natural cycles" (Rosenbaum, 1993).
  • “Sustainability identifies a concept and attitude in development that looks at a site's natural land, water, and energy resources as integral aspects of the development" (Vieira, 1993)
  • "Sustainability integrates natural systems with human patterns and celebrates continuity, uniqueness and place making" (Early, 1993).

Perhaps the single most accepted definition of sustainability emanated in 1987 from the Brundtland Report. Entitled ‘Our Common Future’, the report attempted to identify a path for sustainable development embracing both multilateralism and interdependence of nations and placing environmental issues firmly on the political agenda. The report summarised sustainability as follows:

  • "Meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).

The definition of sustainability outlined in the Brundtland report contains two key concepts. Firstly, the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of poverty-stricken populations across the globe, to which overriding priority should be given. Secondly, the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the ability of the environment to meet present and future needs.

Other definitions are provided in a compilation provided by the Humanities Education Centre: http://www.globalfootprints.org/page/id/0/5/.

Sustainability can be represented diagrammatically in many ways. Figure 1.1 is one that many people find meaningful, and it implies that there are three pillars of sustainability - economic viability, environmental protection and social equity. Other dimensions besides environmental, economic and social could be represented. For instance, in a more developed form of the figure, ‘technical feasibility’, ‘political legitimacy’ and ‘institutional capacity’ could also be included. However, throughout this module, you will see that these three components of sustainability will be referred to routinely.

Figure 1.1: Sustainable development: where ecological, economic and social aspects overlap.

Figure 1.1 adapted from The Open University under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.

It should slowly become evident that defining sustainability is not straightforward. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has released several videos that include decision-makers’ definitions of sustainability. Please view each of these videos:

Complicating further the issue of definition is the tendency for businesses to define sustainability in terms that mean something to that business. Frequently these definitions will refer to efficiency and reduction of resources, carbon management, ethical sourcing and treatment of staff, all concepts that will be explored later in the module.

It soon becomes apparent that large corporations tend to define sustainability in a mannerthat makes sense to them but in many aspects differs from more established definitions of sustainability and sustainable development.


Activity 2

Now create a second entry in your diary entitled ‘Definitions of Sustainability’. Using Google or other search engines, try to identify a number of definitions of sustainability. Record those definitions that mean something to you and write down a couple of lines on why you find them interesting or relevant – don’t forget to include full referencing. If possible, think of events or situations that fit with your favourite definitions of sustainability and write them down. Spend no longer than 15 minutes and attempt to summarise in no less than 200 words.

Then reflect on the definitions of sustainability as defined by some of the corporations cited above. How are they similar and how do they differ from traditional definitions of sustainability? Again, spend no longer than 15 minutes and attempt to summarise in no less than 200 words

One of the neatest definitions of sustainability and its relationship to business is provided by the Natural Step, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to education, advisory work and research in sustainable development. Since 1989, they have worked with thousands of corporations, municipalities, academic institutions and not-for-profit organisations to attempt to demonstrate that moving strategically toward sustainability leads to new opportunities, reduced costs, and dramatically reduced ecological and social impacts.


Activity 3

Take a few moments to watch the Natural Step’s video on how they define sustainability available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFCNCQleCuk. Identify 3-4 initiatives that an organisation or business that you know well could adopt to move towards a concept of sustainability as defined by the Natural Step. Spend no more than 10 minutes on this and note your ideas in bullet point format.