What is Sustainability?

The internationally-recognized concept of sustainability refers to interacting with our habitat on Earth and with one another in a way that sustains a quality life for all living things, forever. To support sustainability we, as individuals and organizations, must learn how to examine the long-term impact of all decisions on people, the economy and the environment, and to take action as needed.

Thinking for Sustainability includes:

  • Considering needs of current and future generations (think 1000 years)
  • Recognizing the inseparable interrelationship between environment, society and economy.
  • Understanding natural laws of science
  • Considering whole systems
  • Understanding responsibility to the commons and to each other, and taking action as needed
  • Identification of a visionary sustainable endpoint and timeline to achieve it, to guide the effort.
  • Recognizing that the effort is a journey, through which mental models change as you learn more about the road and importance of the journey.

United Nations Evolves Understanding of Sustainability

In 1972 the United Nations held the first global Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. It was agreed that the environment is critical, could be changed drastically by human activities, and that common principles were needed to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in its preservation and enhancement.

By 1984 it had become clear that a solely environmental focus wasn't sufficient. The concept of sustainable development was born with the United Nations Brundtland Commission, which issued its famous report, Our Common Future, in 1987.

This led to the 1992 global Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro known as the Rio Earth Summit. The concept of sustainable development had now evolved to include the concept of global environmental change, globalization as an economic concept and human development as a social/cultural concept.

At the Rio Earth Summit a plan for governments to implement actions to address a wide range of issues was developed, known as Agenda 21, which still influences local and national sustainable development policies today.

Green vs. Sustainable

Although "Green" and "Sustainable" are often used interchangeably, their real meanings are quite distinct.

Focus Detail-focused
Example: Recycling
Whole Systems Focus
(inclusive, visionary)
Example: Resource Management
Implementation Tactical
Example: Increase Recycling
Example: Rethink needs, reuse, recycle, while striving to eliminate all waste. Consider impacts from resource extraction through product end-of-life.
Scope Environment only Environment, Economy, Society
Definition of Success Subjective
(success not defined)
Example: More recycling
(success can be clearly defined)
Example: Zero wasted resources or money. Closed loop system. Zero negative social impacts.