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The Three Pillars of Sustainability EXPLAINED

Sustainability may often be interpreted as just environmental sustainability, however, it is much more than that, and the three pillars of sustainability are the fundamental framework to understand it!

What are the three pillars of sustainability?

The three pillars of sustainability are the environment, society, and the economy, those were first mentioned in the Brundtland report in 1987. Sustainable development is built on top of those 3 pillars because it can be achieved only when environmental protection, social equity, and economic profitability coexist without one area taking over any of the others.

According to this definition, the three pillars are seen as interacting with each other at the same level, while sustainable development resides at the intersection of the 3.

The three pillars of sustainability explained
Sustainable development is at the intersection of the three pillars of sustainability
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More recently, the three pillars of sustainable development were also outlined by the United Nations Millennium Declaration and as of today, they represent the most popular model to evaluate and understand sustainable development.

More sophisticated interpretations are also recognizing that the three pillars of sustainability are not all at the same level but there is a hierarchy, where the economy is contained in the society and the society is itself contained inside the environment.

The relationship between the 3 pillars of sustainability
Diagram showing the relationship between the 3 pillars of sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability are often also referred to as people, profit, and the planet. They are also known as the 3 Ps of sustainability, triple bottom line, or 3 principles of sustainability.

Luckily, nowadays we can find many examples of sustainable development and how to achieve it.

The Environmental pillar

Environmental pillar

The environmental pillar involves regulations, laws, and other tools used to deal with environmental facts and issues such as the management of land, freshwater, oceans, forests, air, natural resources, and wildlife.

This pillar involves direct management of the environment with things like planting and preserving oxygen-producing trees and taking action on the human consumption side.

Environmental management involves the use of environmental science and conservation biology to manage at a high level the allocation of resources such as land, water, and emissions to achieve a sustainable future.

This process takes also into account the resilience of the ecosystems and their capacity to absorb disturbances caused by human activities.

The other approach is to manage the demand side of resources coming from human activities. This involves things such as:

  • Energy consumption: incentivizing the migration towards renewable sources and improving efficiency.
  • Waste management: moving away from a linear model (where the materials end up in a landfill) and promoting a circular path, where recycling is used as much as possible to harness its benefits.
  • Food: promoting more healthy and sustainable diets, such as the Mediterranean or Japanese diets, that make less use of animal products.
  • Freshwater: efficiency is improved by upgrading infrastructure and using new green technologies, especially in agriculture. Managing also the demand side, by educating the public on the use of this precious and limited resource.
  • Reducing CO2 emissions: by making extensive use of renewable sources, improving efficiency, and upgrading to new technologies.
  • Population: statistics demonstrate that most of the world’s population growth is coming from the poorest areas of the planet. While the population of the richest nations remains mostly stagnant or in slight decline. Promoting equality and better living conditions for the poor is not only ethical, but it can also contribute to reducing the global growth of the population.
  • Cities: proper planning of the urban spaces and infrastructure can help to achieve more sustainable lifestyles.

Those are just some environmental sustainability examples. Luckily, with the growing environmental awareness, we can find more and more of those examples in our lives, helping to reduce our ecological footprint.

The Social pillar

Social pillar

The social pillar refers to initiatives, public policies, planning, and regulations supporting social issues. These include things such as fighting poverty, social justice, peace, promoting diversity, quality of living, access to healthcare, education, community development, cultural heritage, and some aspects of religion.

Unfortunately, this is the least defined and understood pillar of sustainability compared to ecological and economic ones. However, the social factor is influencing all human activities and as such, is strongly linked also to the economic and ecological dimensions of sustainability and sustainable development.

More in detail, the main aspects of this type of sustainability are:

  • Peace, security, and human rights are very important components of social sustainability, this is because wars, crime, and unethical practices are not only wasting valuable resources in destructive activities but are also ultimately bad for the environment. Just think about all the pollutants dispersed into the environment during wars or from factories using unethical practices.
  • Access to healthcare is a central point of the social principle. Many health-related issues are interconnected with the environment and economic aspects in general. For example, in agriculture, green improvements are also helping to improve health-related conditions. Finally, the World Health Organization is going as far as considering sustainability impossible to achieve without taking care also of health-related issues.
  • Poverty and social justice: poverty and lack of social justice are also not allowing societies to make long-term plans, ultimately reducing human wellbeing while also hurting the environment.
  • Influence of religion and culture: cultural sustainability deals with beliefs, religion, and heritage conservation. Cultural aspects are without a doubt one of the drivers that can help to enable sustainable development. In this respect, recent years saw some important contributions on the religious side that helped to attract more attention to the topic: with both the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis calling for more responsibility in fighting ecological degradation and preserving the ecosystems.

Those are just some social sustainability examples and how they can impact human society and quality of life.

The Economic pillar

Economic pillar

The economic pillar of sustainability is essential for the business’s existence: a business needs to be economically viable to be sustainable. At the same time, a sustainable business should look at profitability as just one component of the company’s strategy.

A conscious business leader aiming at sustainability should encourage a more balanced culture, where also the social and environmental factors are taken into consideration together with profitability and economic sustainability.

Keeping in mind the limits of the planet’s resources is key, especially considering that the current economic model is still based on “infinite” exponential growth.

Unfortunately, often the limited resources available in the environment are not factored in: this is the main problem faced when trying to achieve long-term economic sustainability. There can’t be long-term economic growth if we deplete all the available natural resources.

The capitalist system based on the free market is an incredible tool to improper the standards of living of western nations, however, this doesn’t take into account the limits of our planet: or better, it doesn’t until it will be too late.

For example, a factory that is using non-renewable resources or even an open pit mining operation is penalized because of this, and the damage made is somehow passed on to the collectivity, as a result, the price of their final product will not be influenced by their unsustainable practices. The business doesn’t have a direct economic incentive in adopting more sustainable practices.

One way around this problem is to use government regulations to incorporate the damage made to the environment into the price. This can be done through taxation and incentives: the government can impose a tax on unsustainable practices, such as emissions or excessive waste dispersed into the environment, while it can give a subsidy to more virtuous businesses.

Another concept that is being studied is the opportunity for decoupling economic growth from the degradation of the environment. This means that an increase in GDP would not necessarily mean increased pressure on biodiversity and ecological systems. This of course requires taking a more long-term view of the economic activity and leveraging the available technology, but at the moment, while achievable in some cases, it’s hard to obtain at a global level.

In recent years, thanks also to the increased environmental awareness of the public, sustainable business practices started to gain more traction. This generates new opportunities for businesses and corporates that are interested in embracing a sustainable business model.

Nowadays many businesses are trying to improve the perception of their brand by incorporating sustainability into their business plan. This is leading to new and more environmentally conscious leadership, that, by improving the efficiency of different processes, is often able to improve sustainability without necessarily increasing the cost of the final product.

What is the circular economy?

Circular Economy VS Linear Economy
Circular Economy VS Linear Economy

The circular economy is a new model of production and consumption that aims at improving sustainability by promoting: sharing, repairing, refurbishing, reusing, and finally recycling as much as possible of each product.

The circular economy aims at maximizing the use of manufactured products by sharing and leasing instead of owning them: essentially turning products into services. Just think about how many items you own but rarely use, wouldn’t make more sense to lease them only when needed?

Another important aspect of the circular economy is the design process. Products should be designed to be long-lasting, easy to fix, and recycled when their lifecycle comes to an end. For this reason, having a circular economy also implies having a circular supply chain.

What’s the difference between the circular and the linear economy? The circular economy concept is opposite to the one of the linear economy. In a linear economy, all the resources are pulled from the environment to produce goods that have a relatively low average use and are ultimately destined to landfills.

The objective of a circular economy is to create a closed-loop, where most of the resources are reused through recycling and the manufactured product is used as much as possible by extending its life using remanufacturing and refurbishment. Also in the circular economy, there will be a residual waste, but this will be minimal compared to a linear economy.

Criticism of the circular economy concept

Recent years saw the rise of several critiques of the circular economy model, let’s have a quick overview of the more interesting ones:

  • Some criticize that the circular economy is still privileging continuous economic growth and just trying to improve the sustainability of the current linear model without really addressing the main issue.
  • Corvellec, and Hervé (2019) are focusing on the unavoidability of waste, which should somehow be considered an inevitable byproduct of life. While in the circular economy, waste is considered a sign of failure.
  • Geyer and Zink (2017) are questioning the central assumption of the circular economy. Arguing that reusing and recycling may not be preventing the production of new goods due to economic reasons that are not considered in the circular economic model.
  • Perhaps the most interesting critique comes from Korhonen, Jouni; Honkasalo, Antero; Seppälä, Jyri (2018) who argue that the circular economy model is violating the second law of thermodynamics. According to this fundamental law of physics, all spontaneous processes tend to equilibrium and lead to an increase in entropy. In other words: when trying to implement the circular economy in the real world, it will not be viable to recycle or reuse all the materials. Recycling all the materials would ultimately require systems that will use more energy than what those recovered resources will be worth. As a consequence, we will still have parts of the economy following the linear model.

While the circular economy concept is far from being perfect or the solution to all of our ecological concerns, we still have to recognize that we have no excuse to not pursue more efficiency in how we use and produce things. In this regard, the circular business model is helping to give us a framework to focus the attention on optimizing product design and also to reduce the impact on the environment.

Why are the 3 pillars of sustainability important?

three pillars of sustainability

The term sustainability is commonly used in conjunction with initiatives targeting environmental preservation. However, it originally refers to 3 different areas known as the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic.

The 3 pillars are useful to better understand sustainability and how to have a more eco-friendly lifestyle, in fact, they are used as a reference to create other models such as the 6 Rs of sustainability.

The three pillars of sustainability are important because they offer a framework that can be used to evaluate the sustainability of an organization, business, product, or service.

Finally, the 3 pillars are also used to define the goals of green technology, leading the way towards a sustainable future.

Sustainable development goals and the 3 pillars

SDG aggregated according to the three pillars of sustainability
SDG aggregated according to the three pillars of sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability are important and relevant because the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are based on them. In fact, the SDG goals can also be categorized according to the three pillars.

Here are the sustainable development goals aggregated according to the three pillars of sustainability:

  • ENVIRONMENTAL:
    • SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production
    • SDG 13: Climate action
    • SDG 14: Life below water
    • SDG 15: Life on land
  • SOCIAL:
    • SGD 1: No poverty
    • SDG 2: Zero hunger
    • SDG 3: Good health and well-being
    • SDG 4: Quality education
    • SDG 5: Gender equality
    • SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation
    • SDG 10: Reduced inequalities
    • SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
    • SDG 16: Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  • ECONOMIC:
    • SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy
    • SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth
    • SDG 9: Industry innovation and infrastructure
    • SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals

certifications based on the 3 pillars of sustainability

The 3 pillars of sustainability have been used as a guide to define several common standards and certifications. These include Fairtrade, the Rainforest AllianceGLOBALG.A.P., and UTZ Certified, spanning sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, forest management, and mining operations.

Those certifications are playing an important role on only in measuring objectively the adherence to sustainable business practices, but also in communicating to the consumer which items are sustainably manufactured or produced.

In recent years the public has become more and more conscious about the importance of sustainable development, with damages to the reputation of companies that are keeping a short-sighted approach focusing purely on profit without consideration for the environment.

This led to an ever-increasing number of businesses and corporates committing to reach ambitious sustainability goals in the coming years. Those goals span from zero-emissions commitments to fight climate change to the pursuit of ethical manufacturing, inclusivity, and more.

the three pillars of sustainability and ESG

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance and it’s a relatively new standard used by a growing number of institutional investors to evaluate companies and countries in their sustainability efforts.

Only when enough data has been collected on those 3 areas they may be included in the list of stocks and bonds to be considered for investment.

The three pillars of sustainability are essential for ESG because they are the foundation of the framework used to derive ESG metrics for investments. While traditional models were considering only the economic performance of a company, the ESG evaluation involves all the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic.

This means that a company is not only evaluated by its balance sheet, but it will instead undergo a broader assessment regarding its long-term sustainability according to the 3 pillars.

This includes things such as gender diversity, employment equality, how the company is dealing with its carbon emissions, the use of renewable energy, product safety concerns, leadership sustainability commitments, and much more.

As you can imagine, ESG is also very relevant to green technology startups and companies that would like to obtain funds from institutional investors.

Conclusions

The three pillars of sustainability are environmental, social, and economic.

The 3 pillars are important because they help to better understand sustainability and they are also used as a model for standards and certifications to evaluate the sustainability of organizations, countries, products, and services.

For example, the three pillars of sustainability are used:

  • ESG when evaluating investments
  • Fairtrade certifications
  • Rainforest Alliance standards
  • The 6 Rs of sustainability framework to have a more eco-friendly lifestyle

More in general, the triple bottom line model can be used every time that we want to evaluate the long-term sustainability of literally anything! When doing so it is very important to check if the 3 pillars are in balance or if one of them is too dominant, because to achieve sustainability all of the 3 principles must be satisfied.

Finally, there is also a different and more recent variation of the three pillars of the sustainability model (or 3 Ps, or 3 Es of sustainability), which is emphasising the human sustainability factor by adding one additional pillar. This model is called the four pillars of sustainability and I wrote a separate article about it.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about sustainable development and its three pillars, I’m sure that this knowledge will be very useful in your life and will help you to be more eco-friendly.