The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Show Notes

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

What comes to mind when you think of sustainability? Is it composting? Renewable resources? Or is it more? Well if you read the title of this episode, you may now realize that there are three pillars of sustainability and they all have to function together to achieve truly sustainable communities. In this episode, we’ll outline the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic – also known as planet, people, and profit, to broaden your understanding of sustainability and its interconnectedness with every aspect of our lives. I also nerd out about Portland, Oregon, and give you three documentary recommendations to broaden your growth and connection to issues around the world.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is the ability of a system to endure, but true longevity of life requires the sustainability of every system. The U.S National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 says that the goal of sustainability is to, “create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.” In other words, we have to work with nature to have a productive, healthy society. If the capacity of the environment is lowered, our social system is affected which means less production that the economic system can generate. So really it is the environment that holds the other systems together.


So let’s start there. We’ve got a head start on what it means to have a sustainable planet. Environmental sustainability focuses on efficient resource use, making sure we preserve habitats and the land and maintaining quality soil, air, and water. It’s living in harmony with our natural resources and the animals who live here with us. We all know we are failing at this, as we can see reflected in mass deforestation, extinction, unstable weather conditions caused by climate change, and pollution of our air and waterways affecting human life. The American lifestyle is especially demanding. It is estimated that if everyone in the world lived the way Americans do today, it would take five Earths to sustain the planet! It’s hard for us to see years as a short period of time, when in the grand scheme of the planet – it is.

What that means for us?

We are quickly depleting our resources for immediate satisfaction. Coal is going to run out, oil and natural gas are going to run out. Even our clean water access is being diminished. The International Resource Panel estimates that almost half of the world’s population might struggle with getting fresh water by 2030 – that’s in less than 10 years y’all. Think about it – Earth’s natural resources are the foundation for every single thing in our lives. The furniture you sit on, the car you’re driving, the food you eat, the house you live in, the clothes you’re wearing. It all required either water, soil, energy, or minerals given to us directly by the planet. By doing your own part to live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, you’re helping to bring that harmony to the ecosystem, to allow for fewer resources to be depleted while contributing to the overall wellbeing of our society.


So let’s move on to the second pillar – social sustainability, which is actually kind of the hardest pillar to break down. At its core, social sustainability is about human needs and balancing the needs of individuals with the needs of the group. The Western Australia Council of Social Services says that social sustainability “occurs when the formal and informal processes; systems; structures; and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and livable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life.” So this means at the individual level, we need fairness, respect, diversity, and basic human rights and resources met. And at the community level, we need social cohesion, accessibility, livability, and inclusion. It stands that there should be equal opportunity for education, for a standard of living, for good health, and the opportunity for participation in the systems that affect us. And that all of that should be able to be maintained long term.

Social and Enviornmental Connection

There’s a point where social sustainability meets environmental sustainability on the Venn diagram we talked about, and it is deemed ‘bearable’. Like we’ve mentioned before on this podcast, planetary health and human health are closely related. Around the world, 24% of deaths can be traced back to avoidable environmental factors. As humans, we need and deserve clean air, fresh water, and a life free of toxins and hazardous conditions. So to look at social sustainability is to look at environmental justice – protecting the health of communities who are overburdened by pollution, and having transparent, open processes and education for them to engage in to be able to improve their health. It is having environmental policy and regulations in place to keep the earth and humans safe. It’s promoting public policies that support social sustainability and the advancement and design of sustainable communities. Even by listening to this podcast, you are engaging in social sustainability because you are getting the education on sustainable practices and how you can use it to improve your life and the lives of your local and global neighbors on this planet. And when you share that knowledge, you’re strengthening social sustainability and empowering others to take action for their own health and the environment as well.


The third pillar is economic sustainability. Sustainability in the profit sector about making sure that the businesses can make money and grow without negatively impacting the other two pillars – people and the planet. Economic sustainability is looking at long term profits and returns, cost savings, true pricing, and risk management. It is the ability of an economy to support a defined level of economic production indefinitely. And when you look at it, if people and the planet are taken care of, there is profit to be made. Most people don’t recognize this and don’t understand that the longevity of their company is based on whether we take care of people and the planet. Companies are increasingly figuring out how to adopt sustainable practices, and new companies are factoring it into their entire business model. We all know there are shortcuts to profits – things can be made with the same cheap and easy products that harm our earth and people. But with a little innovation and time dedicated to sustainable practices, it could affect the business’s earnings long term.

Economic and Enviornmental Connection

The point where economic sustainability and social sustainability meet is deemed ‘equitable’. This is where fair trade, worker’s rights, ethics, and supporting local economies come into play. In corporations, they have something called the triple bottom line (TBL) which is an accounting framework that incorporates all three pillars of sustainability into tracking their overall performance. It looks at the company’s social sustainability – their human rights, fair labor practices, living conditions, health, safety, wellness, diversity, equity, as well as the environmentally sustainable practices they are implementing all while considering their financial profit. The point where economic sustainability and environmental sustainability meet is deemed ‘viable’. This makes sure that they are using their resources and energy efficiently, preventing pollution, and meeting environmental policy and regulatory standards. Companies should be quickly figuring out how to rely on renewable resources instead of our finite natural resources if they want to survive long term. You can help support this pillar by supporting businesses that are environmentally and socially sustainable.

Bringing it all together

Bringing all three pillars of sustainability together: you have a sustainable community. The one that manages its human, natural, and financial capital to meet current needs while making sure that there are enough resources for future generations. Focusing solely on one pillar won’t help when the other pillars aren’t strong. When one pillar falls, it weakens the others. They’re all connected in some way or another.

Three Pillars of Sustainability Working Together

For example, the Great Recession of 2008 showed that when in a financial crisis, strapped for money, environmental laws and budgets are typically thrown to the wayside, and nonprofits that work to support the environmental pillar see their income drastically decrease, and it causes a further disparity in our social systems. Another example, if there is political unrest or a fight for resources in the social sector, the environment suffers for short-term survival, and there is lower economic output which leads to negative long-term consequences. You can even look at the Covid 19 pandemic as a really interesting case of the interconnectedness of each pillar. The point is that while the environment is often thrown out the window first when it comes to people and profit, the planet is the most influential in affecting those other two pillars. If the planet fails, people and profits will ultimately fail. Our survival depends on our natural environment. I know that sounds pretty doomsday-esque. But hear me out, I think it can be something positive! Once we realize how interconnected everything is, and hopefully, you have by now, we look at the world differently, which allows us to make necessary changes. And now, you are now equipped to make those changes because you know more.


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