The many definitions of sustainability and sustainable development

October 14, 2019

Have you ever searched for “what is sustainability?” or “definition of sustainability” on search engines? There are more than 250.000 results… so here is an attempt to boil it down!

 

 Image by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

 

The attempts to describe sustainability vary: broad discipline, complex concept, a holistic approach, a business approach, a lifestyle... None of these approaches are wrong. 

 

The word sustainability can mean different things to different people, depending on the context - and what is being sustained. While environmentalists may mean an ecological sustainability when they talk about sustainability, in a business context it can be used to point out an economic sustainability. 

 

In the academic literature, it’s been estimated that there are over 300 definitions of sustainability and sustainable development.

 

In the paper “An Exploration of Sustainability and its Application to Corporate Reporting” Monika Freyman makes an attempt to examine the vast and varied landscape of definitions. In this study, Freyman comes up with the common components of the sustainability concept as illustrated here:

 

 Source adapted from Freyman M., 2012, “An Exploration of Sustainability and Its Application to Corporate Reporting

 

On the other hand, Sustainable measures takes a different approach to definitions and groups them into 4 categories: 

  • Sustainability and sustainable development 

  • Sustainable community and society 

  • Sustainable business and production 

  • Sustainable agriculture 

 

According to the authors, different definitions of sustainability are helpful to explain different situations and targeting varying purposes. You can read the different definitions collected from Sustainable measures here.

 

Further, relevant compilation on the sustainability-related definitions can be found in the book “Sustainability: Essentials for Business”, 2013 from Young, S.T. and Dhanda, K. K.. Here, the definitions vary from sustainable universities to sustainable cities, or sustainable food, sustainable agriculture, sustainable process. The definition compilation section from the book can be recalled from here.

 

Are you looking for additional perspectives? You can also have a look at the website from Humanities Education Centre

 

There is no shortage of documentation and angles and approaches to sustainabilty, if you are searching for alternatives. To ground yourself, I would recommend  the literature by Annie Pearce and Leslie Walrath. The document is here and worth to review.

 

About the author: Gulcin Per is part of the global team of volunteers contributing to the reboot of Impact Garden. She is also an MBA graduate and a business consultant. Her passion for windsurf and her role as a mother make her a strong advocate against climate change.

 

 

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