It may seem mundane at this point, given how widely we use the term “sustainability” these days, but I do think it is worth documenting the Ecodove interpretation of the term to ensure we have a common understanding of the vocabulary we use on the site.
There are two common definitional themes that crop up across the various applications of sustainability:
- Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs
- Sustainability means the ability for humans to co-exist safely over a long period of time.
The first definition is about preserving our environment in such a way that the descendants of the current population are able to live to at least a similar standard as what we have achieved today. The second is slightly more focused on the ability for humans to remain in existence over time without peril.
Both of these definitions center around preserving humanity well into the future, with the first focused on the ability to meet needs, and the latter more focused on the ability to remain safe. Some might argue this difference in language is minor, but I include both of the above as I think it is an important distinction – safety refers to avoiding risk and danger. Needs is a wider concept associated with necessity, and can include more proactive and longer term elements like food security and quality of life.
In terms of a societal movement, sustainability is typically defined across three pillars: economic, environmental, and social. In business, sustainability is typically assessed across three pillars as well, but they are termed “ESG”, standing for Environmental, Social, and Governance. The main reason for this difference is due to the difference in assessing a society, or a network of individuals (economic) or an individual organization (governance).
Understanding Sustainability in Society
In order to better understand how sustainable our society is, we first need a common language to describe it and a set of measuring tools so that we can benchmark our place and track our progress towards a goal. When we look at sustainability across the society, or any network, economic study can be a useful tool for measuring. An economic approach means looking at the forces that act upon organizations and individuals as they exchange goods and services either in-kind (for other goods and services) or for money.
Economic study has traditionally focused on metrics like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of income by geographic region, and inflation, a measure of changes in the amount that goods and services cost. However, economists have long recognized that these measures are not adequate for measuring performance of highly complex systems – their insights are confined to the movement and creation of money. When we look at sustainability as a whole, we need to look wider than GDP and inflation and measure our progress against broader concept categories, including social and environmental outcomes.
GDP growth, for example, is the most widely quoted measure of growth by country, and for the world. Economists and world leaders have relied on GDP for decades as a consistent, reliable indicator of economic growth, which has been often referred to interchangeably with progress. However, time series data from the last 40 years shows us that GDP growth is not highly nor consistently correlated with positive societal outcomes, including the sustainability of our society.
Here’s why: for the purposes of GDP, though, it doesn’t matter whether the income goes to a corporation or an individual. All all income dollars roll up into the top line figure, and they are therefore treated equally. This is important, because it reveals the inability of GDP to reflect changes in the distribution of income. Unlike GDP, income distribution has strong relationships to social variables.
Put plainly, if the only ones benefitting from rising incomes are businesses and already wealthy individuals, social unrest increases, crime rises, and measures of quality of life and life expectancy suffer. Similarly, if growth comes at the expense of environmental degradation, which is has in all highly developed economies to date, the long-term outcomes for So, it is important that we look at social measures as well as monetary ones in our understanding of sustainability.
The environmental element of sustainability refers to the depletion of resources in the world around us. As we use the world’s resources to satisfy human wants and needs, we impact the fragile ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years. Similarly, GDP falls short as a measure of progress when it comes to environmental performance as well.
Income has risen across the developed world while we have polluted our air, water, and soil. In fact, evidence from the late 1990s demonstrates that environmental quality is higher when income distribution is more equitable, not when growth is higher. It is important that we can measure these impacts in order to better inform our decision making processes, and prioritize areas that require change.
Environmental factors will be understood in both scientific and economic terms. Scientific observation of our natural world is the backbone of measuring the sustainability of our society, and our progress towards a more sustainable future. However, matters of economic principle are increasingly leveraged to estimate what our society might look like in future, and to understand the impact of environmental degradation on our economy.
The social pillar of sustainability refers to the level to which humans can safely coexist. That word, “safely” is subject to interpretation, but from my point of view, it means living without undue threat of violence, crime, war or illness. I say “undue” purposefully. I am not so naive as to think that we could live in a world free of violence and illness. The natural world is pretty violent. What we aim to achieve through social sustainability is to normalize these the lowest possible levels, and for those levels to be as equitably distributed across the population as possible. The aspiration of sustainability in our society argues that I shouldn’t get to be healthier simply because I am wealthy.
Assessing sustainability within the social pillar requires that we start to think about human progress at levels that go deeper than just GDP growth. When looking at economic growth with a social lens, we see that it does matter whether income growth is distributed across society as previously mentioned. When growth is unbalanced – and not enough of it flows to those in need, social issues arise. When the environmental impact associated with economic growth is not considered and accounted for, we will sacrifice our environment for the sake of greater income.
Understanding Sustainability at the Organization Level
In contrast to understanding sustainability at the societal level, we need to adjust our metrics when we aim to assess the sustainability performance of an organization. Rather than Economic, Environmental, Social pillars – sustainability assessment for organizations is typically measured in terms of ESG – Environmental, Social and Governance.
Environmental performance, in the context of an individual, will depend on the same types of metrics as it does at the societal level, but the difference here is that we are measuring the impact of the organization’s activities on the environment, rather than the impact of an individual or our society. So, for example, if I am assessing an organization in terms of its environmental performance – I will be looking for things like the organization’s carbon footprint, its consumption of natural resources, and the impact of its activities on the natural world.
If I am assessing an organization with regards to its social performance, I will be looking at the way it treats its workforce and how workers are treated in its supply chain at all tiers. A “tier” in the supply represents the level to which the end organization is connected to various suppliers. So, for example, if I am a clothing brand, and I purchase manufactured garments, the suppliers of the garments are my “tier 1” suppliers. The suppliers of fabric to those garment manufacturers are “tier 2” to my organization, and the suppliers of raw cotton to the fabric makers are “tier 3” to my organization.
Organizations are regulated and assessed (and judged by the public) in relation to the level to which they protect the health and safety of their workers, ensure that there is no modern slavery in all tiers of the supply chain (or, indeed, within their own organization), and the degree to which the organization provides a social benefit to its community.
Governance is a slightly broader term that typically encompasses how well an organization is managed. It might seem like a slightly less relevant pillar to a sustainability assessment, but it is actually quite powerful. I have worked with hundreds of organizations as they are assessed in terms of ESG performance. What I observed throughout the process is that there is quite often a large disconnect between what the organization’s management team says is “company policy” and what actually happens on the front lines.
For example, I’ve seen plenty of occasions in which there is a clear health and safety policy relating to the protective gear that works must wear during work (hard hats, steel tipped boots, eye protection), but when you visit the assembly line or the construction site, less than 50% of workers are adhering to the policy all of the time. This is the role of governance. A well governed organization is more likely to enforce policy, and a policy is only useful if it is applied.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
One of the most globally recognized definition of sustainability comes through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Member States of the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. The aim is to achieve these 17 goals by 2030 with a view towards ending all forms of poverty, fighting inequalities and tackling climate change while ensuring that no one is left behind.
It is worth noting here that these goals are aligned to the context of development. These goals have been crafted by the UN’s Department of Economic Development and Social Affairs. They are not sustainability for sustainability’s sake – they are aimed at weaving sustainability into the economic development and social agenda.
That does not make them any less laudable; it simply means that the priorities are aligned to development, which puts the focus on sustainable goals that also encourage growth and provide societal benefit. Therefore, you are slightly less likely to see goals reflected here that do not have explicitly documented benefits to people or that might reverse economic growth.
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-Being
- Quality Education
- Gender Equality
- Clean Water and Sanitation
- Affordable and Clean Energy
- Decent Work and Economic Growth
- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
- Reduced Inequalities
- Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Responsible Consumption and Production
- Climate Action
- Life Below Water
- Life on Land
- Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
- Partnerships for the Goals
Footnote: Guidelines for using SDG Goal Images
What is clear from the above analysis of the vocabulary and measurement tools that are applied in different scenarios surrounding the study of sustainability is that there are valid reasons for applying different methods in different contexts (societal and business). While the definition of sustainability relies on a shared foundation of environmental protection and social development, the methods by which we measure and benchmark ourselves can flex depending on the context.
It is natural that different actors with different priorities will focus on different aspects of sustainability. It is fair that in some cases we will use scientific measurements to describe and understand sustainability, and in others we will use economic measurements. It is important that we understand the methods being used when we draw conclusions from these measurements.
Ecodove looks at organizations through the lens of ESG performance, and we will evaluate networks through the lens of Economic, Environmental, and Social elements. We will regularly reference the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as guiding principles for how international organizations are likely to define and approach sustainability.