The three pillars of sustainability explained

Three pillars of sustainability diagram
Wikimedia Commons

Explaining the three pillars of sustainability first requires defining sustainability. The concept of sustainability arose from environmental activism. It’s taken to mean making sure that the current generation can meet its needs without making it impossible for future generations to meet theirs. That is, we can sustain ourselves and posterity only with practices that do no future harm. 

It quickly became apparent that environmental problems can’t be solved in isolation from other problems. When a nation’s economy is bad, it often cuts back on its environmental goals as a result. Where there is war or grinding poverty, the environment suffers greatly. Everything else seems a higher priority.

Although the phrase “three pillars of sustainability” is common, the most helpful chart that explains how they relate to each other is a Venn diagram. It comes closer to the related term “three spheres of sustainability.” In either case, no one of them can function optimally without both of the others.

The interaction of the three pillars of sustainability


  • Environmental and economic sustainability combine to make everyone’s living conditions viable—until social unrest overwhelm them.
  • Environmental and social sustainability combine to make everyone’s living conditions bearable—until they run out of money to keep it all going.
  • Economic and social sustainability  combine to make everyone’s living conditions equitable—until the environment degrades to where Earth can’t sustain human life.
  • Sustainable living conditions require the intersection of all three facets.

Making a chart and describing it is fairly easy, but so far, all the major players seem to specialize in one facet. No one has yet devised a means to pursue all of them at once. It seems, however, that our own personal lives do not demand such cumbersome juggling. We just have to take full responsibility for our own actions and attitudes and not wait for someone else to solve the problems.

Another useful metaphor

Tree branches, leaves, and white squirrel. Metaphor for three pillars of sustainability.
My photo

Think of a tree. The trunk and branches represent structural principles, and the leaves represent specific problems and specialized expertise to solve them. 

Just consider the choice between paper and plastic shopping bags. Paper bags lead to deforestation. Plastic bags are made from unrenewable petroleum and never biodegrade. Cloth bags, you suggest? It takes considerably more energy, water, and other resources to make them. So we argue over what’s sustainable. 

Now think of issues such as energy sources, social equity, or means of paying for whatever solutions we can find.  We can’t deal with just the leaves. We must start with the trunk and branches to understand how the whole tree fits together. 

That doesn’t mean we can ignore the leaves. What if a few people and organizations communicate to everyone what the trunk and branches look like and everyone else pay careful attention to the leaves on one branch?

The Natural Step has proposed a framework of four basic principles. We can discern the three pillars of sustainability within them, but let’s not mix metaphors. 

Environmental sustainability

The first three principles specifically address environmental sustainability. To become a sustainable society, we must stop contributing to:

  1. the systematic increase in extracting substances from the earth, such as oil or heavy metals
  2. the systematic increase in making substances such as plastics or toxic chemicals
  3. the systematic physical degradation of natural processes (such as deforestation, overfishing, or destroying wildlife habitats)

These principles do not mean that we can never mine substances, make products, or cut down trees. We just have to agree on ways to do them that don’t wind up concentrating waste and pollution that interfere with natural processes.

Environmental sustainability is probably what first comes to mind when anyone thinks of sustainability. And we spend time and energy arguing about the leaves rather than trying to clarify major issues. 

I certainly hope that no one considers pollution a positive value. I hope that no one thinks that we can keep filling landfills indefinitely. 

Indeed, both large corporations and individual households are vigorously pursuing the concept of zero waste to the landfill. But our broken recycling system makes it difficult to achieve. Scientific advances such as enzymatic or catalytic plastic recycling can help. The linked article describes methods of breaking plastic down into its component chemicals. If we can make new plastic from them, it can take oil drilling out of the equation. 

Social sustainability

Here is the fourth principle from The Natural Step: To become a sustainable society, we must stop contributing to  the systematic undermining of people’s capacity to meet their basic needs. 

The Natural Step has identified nine human needs that transcend all times and cultures: subsistence, affection, protection, participation, understanding, identity, creation, leisure, and freedom. Lack of any one of these represents some kind of poverty.

Social sustainability therefore encompasses such issues as

  • urban regeneration
  • community development
  • cultural diversity
  • workforce development
  • social justice and equality
  • human rights
  • globalization, consumerism, and ethical trade
  • health and wellbeing

In our polarized society, what looks like social justice to some looks like class warfare to others. Many of our major institutions value demographic diversity (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) but not diversity of viewpoint. 

Governments must be involved in social sustainability, and especially local governments, which are closer to the lives of actual people. But governments can’t be in the business of wealth redistribution or picking winners and losers. And bureaucracies mustn’t grow faster than the economy. That can only lead to more polarization and division.

But as always, we as individuals have more power and influence that we often realize. We can at least opt out of acting like trolls and try to be reasonable and respectful of each other. 

Economic sustainability

energy meter with money. economic sustainability

The Natural Step’s first three principles can’t happen without rethinking the economy. Mundane issues such as taxation and corporate financing have a huge impact on how effectively we can follow them. 

For example, venture capital does very well at financing companies that aim to operate on a large scale and dominate their industry. Smaller and less centralized companies can be more environmentally friendly. That is, if they can get funding long enough to establish themselves. 

I have said that large corporations aspire to zero waste to the landfill. It turns out that corporate social responsibility, socially responsible investing, and similar concepts can actually help a company’s bottom line.

Unfortunately, too many progressive environmentalists have a mindless aversion to the profit motive. They equate profit with greed. In fact, everyone’s ability to meet their basic human needs depends on someone making a profit providing them. So does any aspect of sustainability. But it also depends on earning and spending profits according to the greatest public good. No one could over-exaggerate greed if it weren’t real. Extended producer responsibility legislation should help.

The circular economy

Economic sustainability envisions the circular economy. Production in our current economy is a straight line. Someone makes a product, wasting and polluting resources in the process. Getting it to the user can also waste and pollute resources. Users can give it or sell it to other users, but eventually, it wears out or everyone loses interest. Then it becomes junk, a disposal problem. Whether by landfill, burning, or litter, disposal represents more waste and pollution. 

The idea of a circular economy means to eliminate waste and pollution. And that includes eliminating wasted labor. In a circular economy, manufacturers design products for durability and reuse. It envisions repairing or remanufacturing worn out products. Or failing that, reusing components and materials for something else. As in the case of making new plastic from enzymatically destroyed used plastic.

Every resource in a circular economy must therefore be renewable. Energy comes from renewable sources, not from burning fossil fuels. People use things, but don’t use things up. 

Recycling becomes more radical than anything we do now. It becomes possible to recover all metals, for example, or return plastics to component chemicals. And use those chemicals to make new plastic. 

Biological materials return to nature through some kind of biodegradation. 

Of course, moving from a linear to a circular economy will require rethinking everything we know. It might mean that everyone has access to lease machines and materials without having to own them. When the lease is up, the manufacturer takes back the machine and refurbishes it for the next user. 

What it all means

Whether we use the metaphor of a tree, or three pillars of sustainability, or three spheres of sustainability, we have to deal with a very complicated unity. It’s one thing to find a metaphor that gives us a complete picture. And quite another thing to figure out how everything can work together. 

Somehow, we have to keep an eye both on the overall structure and all the details. But there are billions of us. If we determine to work together, we can accomplish great things. If we keep bickering and working at cross-purposes, we’re doomed. 

Shop related products:

101 Ways to Go Zero Waste / Kathryn Kellogg

Silent Spring / Rachel Carson

Sustainability Principles and Practice / Margaret Robertson

Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home / Julia Watkins

Mainstreaming Corporate Sustainability: Using Proven Tools to Promote Business Success, 2nd edition / Suzanne Farver

Better Business: How the B Corp Movement
Is Remaking Capitalism /
Christopher Marquis
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