What is sustainability?

Something that is sustainable is maintained, continued in existence, or kept going over the long term. The concept of sustainability is often depicted in Western culture by three overlapping circles representing the social, the economic, and the environmental dimensions.

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(Sadler, 1990)

Note: Sadler’s original model contained the term “ecological.” Later, “ecological” was replaced with the broader term “environmental.” Therefore, “ecological” is shown in the original model, but the discussion and subsequent models provided by other organizations use the term “environmental.”

Because organizations have an enormous impact on society today, we want to ensure that all three dimensions of sustainability are given equal consideration. Economic objectives (profits) should not be pursued to the detriment of our eco-systems (environment) or quality of life (social).

The term sustainability is easy to conceptualize but sometimes difficult to implement.

What do the three dimensions represent?

Each dimension has specific goals or outcomes. Unfortunately, achieving goals in one dimension sometimes affects the ability to achieve goals in another dimension. All three dimensions involve elaborate systems to achieve its respective goals. Meeting the goals implicit in all dimensions means that the activity, project, or operations are on a journey toward sustainability, not that sustainability has been achieved. There is always the expectation of continuous improvement.

Economic Dimension Environmental Dimension Social Dimension
The economic dimension represents a system of producing, distributing, and consuming wealth.  The economic dimension is important because economic systems are primarily responsible for satisfying our material needs through

  • money;
  • property;
  • possessions of monetary goods; and
  • anything having economic value measurable in price.
The environment dimension represents a system of maintaining the integrity of our ecosystems to enable them to continue to produce and function.  The environmental perspective represents

  • ensuring the biological and ecological conditions that make development possible;
  • maintaining stocks of raw materials for future generations; and
  • preserving flora and fauna and their habitats (air, water, and land) for their own sake.

One reason to keep our ecosystems healthy is to ensure raw materials are available for the products and services we expect.  However, the environmental dimension is also important for the value that the flora and fauna have in their abilities to satisfy the social and economic needs of individuals and societies.

The social dimension represents a system of living, or associating, in groups or communities rather than in isolation.  Because of the growth of our world population, our very existence impacts others.The social dimension balances individual rights with community rights to maintain and improve human living standards and satisfy basic human needs.  It also includes higher-level social and cultural wealth.  For example, the wealth of the social dimension represents the following:

  • fair treatment regardless of gender and racial equality;
  • a basic level of health care;
  • safety standards at work;
  • food standards;
  • exposure to the arts and humanities;
  • recreational opportunities;
  • happy personal life;
  • lack of human exploitation.

The wealth created from social goals is generally not defined in terms of material possessions that can be bought, sold, or stocked for the future.  The wealth created is intangible but makes for a better society.