Sustainability: What does it mean?
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Philip Sutton
Director, Policy and Strategy
Green Innovations Inc.
Tel & fax: +61 3 9486 4799
28 August 2000 - Version 2.e-w:ii

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by Philip Sutton.


What is the scope of the concept of 'sustainability'? Contents

Among other things, the concept of "sustainability" can be applied to:

What is 'sustainability' about? Contents

Sustainability is not "about" the integration of ecological, social and economic issues, nor is it "about" widespread consultation nor is it "about" improving quality of life. It's about maintaining or sustaining something.

To understand the concept you have to first identify what people are choosing to sustain, that is, you need to identify the focus of their concern. Then you can work out what to do to sustain that thing or condition.

In order to sustain something it may well be necessary to integrate ecological, social and economic issues or to consult widely, but this is not what sustainability is "about". These pragmatic requirements are not the focus of the concept.

One reason why people often feel uncertain about what 'sustainability' means is that it has to be applied to something before its meaning is clear - and people usually don't specify what it is applied to when they use the term.

Many environmentalists mean 'ecological sustainability' when they say 'sustainability'. And many business people mean 'economic sustainability' when they say 'sustainability'. However, increasingly many people mean 'ecological and social and economic sustainability' (a combination of the three) when they use the term 'sustainability' without qualifying it.

However we need to bear in mind that it is not possible to achieve a desired level of ecological or social or economic sustainability (separately) without achieving at least a basic level of all three forms of sustainability, simultaneously.

So if a basic level of ecological, social and economic sustainability needs to be achieved simultaneously if any one type of sustainability is to be achieved, you may well wonder why the focus of sustainability needs to be clarified at all!

The reason is simply that, most often, when people use the term, they have in mind - in relation to their focus - a much higher level of achievement than the basic level. Environmentalists may well have in mind that they want to maintain a very high quality of life for humans or they want all other species to be protected (for their own sake). But to sustain society and the economy it is probably not necessary to sustain, for example, very high levels of environmental aesthetics or all other species(1). Social justice advocates probably have in mind the maintenance of a very high quality of life for people when they talk about the need for social sustainability. And for that to be achieved a high level of equality is needed. But a high level of equality is probably not necessary if one's concern is focussed exclusively on economic or ecological sustainability(2).

Despite differences, a number of common principles are embedded in most definitions of sustainable development or sustainability. These include: Unfortunately these principles mix together ends and means which can lead to uncertainty about what 'sustainability' is all about. For example the maintenance of the natural environment, natural capital, environmental quality and ncome for all generations and all species are goals. Dealing cautiously with risk, ensuring appropriate valuation, integrating environmental and social and economic goals, and promoting equity and participation are all means. Even if 'social sustainability' was the intended focus of concern, promoting equity and participation is still a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

(1) Although if species extinctions exceed the process of species creation for more than a short while we can be certain that society and the economy will suffer eventually.

(2) Although if social equity systematically declines for more than a short while we can be certain that the environment and the economy will suffer eventually.

Survival sustainability Contents

The most basic level of sustainability is survival sustainability. This involves the maintenance of ecological life-support systems, the social capacity to solve major problems and the economic capacity to meet subsistence needs of the population. At this basic level of sustainability all three requirements must be met simultaneously.

What is the relationship between 'sustainability' and quality of life? Contents

There are two levels of sustainability that are worth thinking about. One is the maintenance of basic sustainability and this is usefully referred to as 'survival sustainability'. The other relates to the maintenance/restoration of the normally expected quality of life. In some regions this quality of life is far beyond the level required for basic survival.

The pursuit of sustainability, by definition, does not imply efforts to create for the first time a higher level for our quality of life. Such an activity or aspiration goes beyond the concept of maintenance and so goes beyond sustainability. This is not to say that people shouldn't aspire to improve their quality of life beyond their normally expected level, it is just that it undermines the meaning and power of the concept of sustainability to try to stretch the concept beyond it core meaning.

For example, the pursuit of survival sustainability and improved quality of life may sometimes conflict. It is possible for communities to put such large amounts of effort into improving the experiential aspects of their quality of life (aesthetic, time saving, or stimulus generating aspects) that they fail to put enough effort into ensuring survival sustainability. This is what most affluent societies are doing.

Local and global sustainability Contents

Sustainability is a system characteristic. Sub-systems within a bigger system are most unlikely to be sustained if the overall system is not sustained. This means that local sustainability (ie. the sustainability of local geographic areas) is very unlikely if global sustainability is not assured. Similarly a firm or organisation is most unlikely to be sustainable if the society at large is not sustainable. So, there is a high probability that action taken to achieve local sustainability, that is not combined with catalytic action to achieve global sustainability, is doomed to failure.

Internal and external sustainability Contents

Sustainability is the attribute of a system that has the internal capacity to:
This is an attribute that can only be aspired to by 'living' systems - species, ecosystems and societies.

More or less sustainable? (more or less meaningless!) Contents

People often talk about things being "more sustainable" or "less sustainable".

Something should be referred to as being sustainable if it is being managed so that it is indeed sustained (restored and maintained over time). 

Sustainability is like being pregnant or alive or dead. You either are or you are not. So relative sustainability is a not a valid concept. Something is either sustained or sustainable or it's not.

So when people say something is "more sustainable" or "less sustainable" they probably mean one of the following things:

These three concepts are actually very different from each other. And how you react to the news that something is so-called "more sustainable" or "less sustainable" should depend on which of these three meanings is being used. So there is merit in being clear about what we really mean. And, in my opinion, the first step towards being clear is to stop using misleading and fuzzy concepts like "more sustainable" or "less sustainable" and instead describe things more carefully.

For example, there is something slightly ludicrous about saying that as a result of a new policy or practice a species or ecosystem is "more sustainable" if in fact the most likely outcome is that the decline of the system or species will now be merely less fast. Something that is continuing to decline is hardly sustainable!

So if we put in place a new environmental practice or policy and we don't know exacly what the result will be we should just say that we expect an improved environmental outcome.

Being clear about what sustainability means is a critical step towards making it possible to actually achieve a sustainable environment and society. So getting the ideas clear is not an academic or semantic indulgence but an intensely practical need.

Sustainability - a journey or a destination? Contents

What happens if something is not sustainable? It will cease (at some point) to exist.  So unsustainability is the state of a thing or condition prior to its actual or expected extinction.

If the thing/condition that ceases to exist is of no great consequence then we need not worry too much about the earlier state of unsustainability.  But if the extinction of the thing/condition actually matters - morally, ecologically, economically or socially - then its earlier state of unsustainability also matters.

In an evolving/developing/dynamic system things are constantly changing, which means that there is a constant flux of things/conditions ceasing to exist. We can't try to sustain every thing or condition otherwise we would have to freeze the world at a particular moment in time.  However it makes sense to try to sustain some things/conditions - for practical or moral reasons eg. life support systems, economic productive power, social capacity for nurturance and problem solving (for practical reasons) or species (for moral and/or practical reasons).

If these things/conditions are worth sustaining, then their unsustainability matters. And therefore, for these things, the notion of treating the pursuit of sustainability as a journey not a destination is highly inappropriate ie. where the pursuit of sustainability is treated as a process of going through the motions to achieve minor gains [eg. some things are saved and the rate of decline in the rest is reduced somewhat] but where there is no expectation that sustainability, at a big-picture level, will be or can be achieved).

So for the things/conditions that matter, sustainability must be a destination, not just a journey.  For things that don't matter we can please ourselves how we approach the sustainability effort (ie. as a destination, journey or both, or an issue of total disinterest!).

It is worth noting that treating a sustainable state as a destination doesn't mean that society cannot revise or refine its idea of what sustainability is at a future date.  Even with everyday destinations an initial intention to go to the the fruit and vege shop doesn't preclude a later decision to go to the bank as well or to go to the supermarket instead!

Sustainability PLUS:
The dimensions and levels of sustainability;
and the link to improving quality of life

Chart: Sustainability PLUS

Sustainability and products Contents

People like to think that they can make 'sustainable products'. But the concept does not make sense at several levels. We do not know how useful or damaging a product is or will be, from a sustainability perspective, until we have assessed it in the context in which it is being or will be used - that is because sustainability is the attribute of a system not an object.

Furthermore, sustainability is the attribute of a system that has the internal capacity to improve its internal or external sustainability. And there are virtually no products with this proactive capacity.

Sustainability-promotion Contents

Firms / organisations / communities that are concerned to achieve sustainability need to have a way of describing themselves as such. But to call themselves a 'sustainable organisation', or firm or community or whatever, is vainglorious while the wider society is so far from sustainability. So it is more accurate and empowering to refer to the firm / organisation / community as 'sustainability-promoting'.


Author:  Philip Sutton
First posted:  August 1998
Content modified:  28 August 2000 (change 2)
Layout modified:  28 August 2000
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