Sustainability – What is it? Definition, principles and examples

What is sustainability? On which principles does sustainability stand? What examples of sustainability are there in technology, food, workplace, business or transportation areas? How does sustainability connect with demand and supply? Let’s find out.

definition sustainability principles

What is sustainability?

There is no universally agreed definition of sustainability. In fact, there are many different viewpoints on this concept and on how it can be achieved.

Etymologically, the word sustainability comes from sustainable + ity. And sustainable is, for instance, a composition of sustain + able. So if we start from the beginning, to <sustain> means “give support to”, “to hold up”, “to bear” or to “keep up”. Sustainable is, therefore, an adjective for something that is able to be sustained, i.e, something that is “bearable” and “capable of being continued at a certain level”. In the end, sustainability can perhaps be seen as the process(es) by which something is kept at a certain level.

Nonetheless, nowadays, because of the environmental and social problems society is facing, sustainability is commonly used in a specific way.  It can, therefore, be defined as the processes and actions through which humankind avoids the depletion of natural resources to keep an ecological balance so that the quality of life of society doesn’t decrease.  In this way, we can say that resources exploitation, manufacturing operations, the direction of investments, technological developments, wealth distribution, institutional changes, among others, are being sustainable if they don’t hurt the ecosystem services and if they allow for society’s quality of life not to decrease.

Definition of sustainability and sustainable development: what’s the difference?

The views on sustainability seem to have a stronger focus on the present moment and on keeping things above a certain level. By its turn, sustainable development focuses more on a long-term vision. In fact, sustainable development has a universally agreed definition that was first written in the Brundtland Report. By adding the concept of <development>, sustainable development means not only that humankind should satisfy its current needs without compromising the ability of future generations doing the same.

Along with it also comes an idea of societal progress and an increase in quality of life. That’s with an agenda for 2030 with 17 sustainable goals was adopted by the UN members in NY in 2015. Among them are goals such as ending poverty and hunger, ensuring good health and well-being for all, providing quality education or achieving gender equality.

Principles of sustainability: the 3 pillars of sustainability

The principles of sustainability are the foundations of what this concept represents. Therefore, sustainability is made up of three pillars: economic, social and environment. These principles are also informally used as profit, people and planet.

John Elkington, from a sustainability consultancy firm, was one of the first people to integrate these 3 principles. He argued companies needed to start considering this triple bottom line so that they could the world thrive in the long run (more info about the triple bottom line in our article: sustainable development).

At the same time, consumers and citizens unsatisfied with the long-term damage (both on wealth distribution and the environment) caused by the corporate focus on short-term profits, turned sustainability into a mainstream concept able to ruin a company’s reputation and profits. Today, sustainability is often spoken of with regard to climate change, which threatens life as we know it as is being largely caused by industrial practices. That’s one of the reasons why today many companies have corporate responsibility (CSR) strategies.

Examples of sustainability: a long-term vision

Sustainability encourages people, politics, and businesses to make decisions based on the long term. In this way, acting sustainably encompasses a temporal framework of decades (instead of a few months or years) and considers more than the profit or loss involved. Let’s find out different examples of sustainability depending on the industry.

Technology: examples of what is sustainability in technology

sustainability examples technology

The use of electronic devices is growing every day. Nonetheless, these devices are made of Earth minerals extracted by the mining industry. Mining can be a very polluting industry and the development of new sites certainly has an impact on deforestation. Therefore, being sustainable in the tech field has a lot to do with using your devices for a long period despite having new ones coming out all the time. It is also about making sure you get disposed of them in a responsible way as can be very polluting if not handled properly.

Soon, sustainability in technology will also be about how the (mostly) lithium-ion batteries of electric cars and solar panels will be disposed of. Companies focusing on recycling these batteries and building products whose core car be maintained and replaced for a new battery will also be the ones on he forefront.

Fashion: examples of sustainability in fashion

definition what sustainability fashion
Fashion, especially fast fashion, focuses on speed and low cost to deliver frequent new collections. Nonetheless, the problem with this industry its negative environmental impact. On one hand, it uses toxic chemicals that cause water pollution which may contaminate the soils too if wrongly disposed of. On the other hand, there’s a lot of textile waste and many clothes are made of synthetic fibers which, while being washed, escape to the sea in the shape of microplastics. In this way, if a company makes clothes with resistant materials, uses sustainably produced cotton, applies principles of circular economy in its value chain and uses less toxic chemicals, it is responsible with the environment.
At the same time, sustainability is also about being socially responsible. And overall, the fashion industry isn’t a very responsible one. If you pay attention most labels show that clothes are being made in distant places such as China, Bangladesh or Vietnam. Apart from the pollution of transporting these items, the manpower behind the manufacturing of these clothes is what’s most worrying. People in these countries usually get really low wages and work under bad conditions. They can hardly improve their social situation and most times keep on working just to pay the bills and survive. This largely contributes to the inequality we see in the world, where in 2018 the rich went richer and the poor poorer, according to Oxfam’s latest report.

Transportation: what does sustainability mean in transportation?

sustainability examples transportation

A report from the IPPC says 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from transport and most are mostly due to passenger cars. Yes, contrary to what many believe, planes, cargo ships or even trucks aren’t the main contributors to CO2 emissions and are cars can assume much of the blame. So unless someone is driving a car with 4 or 5 passengers, taking public transportation, especially trains but also buses are more sustainable choices. And if one can simply walk or cycle it’d be even better.

Today, there are even more sophisticated solutions to reduce the pollution caused by moving around. At a vehicle level, the popularity and industry development of alternatives like electric cars (or even hydrogen cars) or electric scooter are growing at a high rate. At the same time, solutions like carpooling, where through which drivers can get their cars empty and save some money (and pollution) are great alternatives. Not to mention the fact that more companies are letting their employees working from home or remotely, allowing to safe the number of km travelled too!

Zero waste as an example of sustainability

sustainability examples zero waste

The zero waste movement is a lifestyle that encourages people to use all types of resources in a circular way, just like the natural world does. Therefore, the ultimate goal of this philosophy is to avoid resources to follow a linear route and end up as trash in the oceans or landfills. For this, people must refuse what they don’t need, reduce what they’re getting, reuse it and recycle or compost it.

Associated with this lifestyle is also a minimalist way of living, where people are often invited to leave behind and refuse that they don’t need. The movement is also very well known by people taking their own bulks to shops to buy commodities such as chickpeas, rice or liquid soap. The goal is clear: not to take any trash home.

The food industry: examples of its sustainability?

sustainability examples food

A company that tries to grow its crops by not using (or using few) toxic pesticides and focuses on organic farming and biomimicry practices is certainly a less polluting one. If it pays fair wages to its employees and manages to still be competitive on the market, it is then being responsible when it comes to profit, people and planet.

Workplace: examples of what is sustainability in the workplace?

sustainability example workplace

The workplace can also be organized in a sustainable way. For instance, companies betting on new technologies and becoming paperless or that provide conditions and training for employees to recycle are being careful about waste management. At the same time, not asking air-conditioners for very extreme temperatures (that waste much energy waste and emit GHG), opening the blinds when there’s sunlight and avoiding plastic cutlery are also good ways to have a sustainable workplace.

Operations and value-chain: where’s the sustainability?

Let’s analyze sustainability in operations by imagine a company with very high energy costs as they are steel manufacturers. If it is economically viable, the company could install solar panels and power its operations with this energy. It’d be a medium-long term investment that could be economically interesting in the long run. And at the same time, the company would be using renewable energy, which is especially important in places where the electricity grid works mostly on fossil fuels.

A company’s strategy (CSR): where is its sustainability?

sustainability definition csr business

A company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a strategy that integrates the policies and practices firms wanting to create value on their triple bottom line (people, planet, profit). So besides taking care of their workplaces and trying to be eco-friendly along their value-chain, companies with a sustainability mindset are also concerned about social issues like gender equality, happiness at the workplace or taking care of the communities affected by their activities. At the same time, they don’t underestimate the financial side of the business, where profit is a basic condition for organizations to survive – yet, it’s not the main reason or the main purpose why these businesses exist.

Sustainable cities: what does it mean to a sustainable city?

Sustainable cities can be considered as cities that have strong social, economic and environmental performances. They have good scores when it comes to air pollution, availability of public transportation, the number of educated and employed people, the percentage of green spaces, energy consumption or access to drinking water.

Presumably, sustainable cities are to be better prepared to face the challenges of urban areas as society develops and as climate change events get more frequent and intense.

Waste management: is there sustainability in waste management?

sustainability examples waste management

A factory that takes proper care of its industrial waste and doesn’t drop it in a nearby river or land is acting in a sustainable way. In fact, this factory is being responsible by avoiding the short-term costs of damaging disposal that could have an expensive and impactful long-term environmental damage.

At the same time, companies looking for less polluting packaging alternative are also good sustainability models to follow. Since plastics are polluting land and seas and harming ecosystems and biodiversity, it’s a good idea that businesses invest in new designs that allow products to be more resistant and even re-manufactured. On top of this, if biodegradable materials are being used, even better.

The connection between supply, demand, and sustainability

sustainability examples supply demand

Supply and demand. Demand and supply. We often these two concepts and it’s not hard to think about their connection with sustainability and sustainable development. Supply and demand are economic forces of the free market that control what suppliers are willing to manufacture and what consumers are willing to purchase. Specifically, supply means how much of a certain product, commodity or service suppliers are willing to “give” or produce at a certain price. And demand refers to how much of this product or service consumers are willing to purchase at a particular price.

The relationship between demand and supply carries the forces behind the allocation of resources. And according to market economy theories, demand and supply theory will allocate resources in the most efficient way. The connection between this theory and sustainability is that nowadays we’re going over Earth’s biocapacity because we’re “demanding too much”. This demand is happening not only because the population is increasing. It is also due to the appealing equilibrium price which is, among other things, influenced by the lowed by mass production.

At the same time, sustainability is also often spoken in terms of the supply chain. In this case, it means that companies should be concerned about the sustainability of their suppliers’ processes.

What is ecosystems sustainability?

The sustainability of ecosystems is about keeping the ecological services working. This means an ecosystem’s footprint cannot exceed its biocapacity. But what is biocapacity?

Biocapacity definition: what is biocapacity?

sustainability ecosystems services definition biocapacity

The definition of biocapacity, according to WWF, is “the capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb waste materials generated by humans, using current management schemes and extraction technologies.”

Also, according to the Global Footprint Network, biocapacity can change because of climate and depending on which ecosystem services are considered useful inputs to be used in the human economy. Also, according to the National Footprint Accounts, “the biocapacity of an area is calculated by multiplying the actual physical area by the yield factor and the appropriate equivalence factor. Biocapacity is usually expressed in global hectares”.

Image credits to sustainability Earth on Shutterstock, responsible business on Shutterstock, ecosystem services on Shutterstock, sustainable fashion on Shutterstock, technology on Shutterstock, bike on Shutterstock, zero waste on Shutterstock, factory pollution on Shutterstock and supply-demand on Shutterstock