Pillars of Sustainability | Economic, Environmental, and Social

Sustainability ideally means meeting the needs of the present generation using the resources that are available without bothering the future generations to come. It can also be defined as an integration of 3 pillars of social, economic and environmental columns. Under this concept, people look for an approach that is equally balanced with long term profitability, maximum environmental care, reducing environmental impact, and increasing social responsibilities.  If any of these three pillars is weak, then the whole system will be unsustainable on the whole. The goal of these three pillars is to bring sustainability to the world.

Most of the organizations at the international level only focus on any one of the pillars at a time. This leaves a space. No Organization is concentrating on working on all the three pillars of sustainability simultaneously. However, according to a report during the great recession in 2008, it has been observed that the weakness in the environmental pillar will weaken the other two pillars as well. Thus  environment is an integral part of the three pillars.

Many nations are imposing strict laws and regulations for environmental protection. Social pillar is vital too. If a war or a high level of poverty breaks out in the nation, then the environment will receive no attention. Therefore, a solution for all the entire suitability problems should include all the three pillars of corporate sustainability.

To explain the three pillars of sustainability, we require a system diagram. The biosphere is the largest system where we live. It is composed of the human system which is again subdivided into economic and social systems. The people from the social subsystem work together under a government to optimize the economic output of the system.

Environmental sustainability occupies the highest priority. If the environmental capacity lowers down, the goods delivered by the social system will also be lowered, thus affecting the economic system produced and reducing the standard of living.

Related Articles:

  1. Sustainable Development Goals by United Nations
  2. Environmental Management
  3. Importance of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
  4. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)
  5. Types of environmental degradation

3 pillars of sustainability

Organizations Working on the Pillars of Sustainability

Many national and international organizations are working on one or all three aspects of sustainability. Let us know them in detail below.

  • UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agencies) mainly focus on the environmental pillar.
  • The WTO (World Trade Organization) gives importance mostly to economic sustainability.
  • OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) focuses on both economic and social sustainability like justice and reduction of war.

1. Definition of Social Sustainability 

The ability of a social system to perform at a defined level of social well being for an indefinite time is known as Social Sustainability. The level should be in relation to the goals set by human beings to optimize the quality of life of the living and their descendants. This means that on the implementation and practical basis social sustainability is undefined. This is the weakest pillar among the three.

Social sustainability balances the need between the individual and the group. Economic development, standard of living, human development, urban areas, quality education etc can be considered as a part of this pillar. Some of the finest examples of social sustainability taken by big companies are:

  • Social initiatives like market-specific training programs, sustainable agriculture, safety initiatives of the worker, and donations of food are incorporated by Walmart this year.
  • Verizon supports social Sustainability through matching gifts, efforts for cause collection where employees are requested to donate their money, time and other material goods. The company is also introducing volunteer grants, disaster recovery and relief programs, and different energy-saving technologies in various medical clinics, senior citizen living facilities, schools, and colleges.
  • Nestle has committed to addressing the impact of their productions leading to scarcity of water, and harmful effects on the health and wellness of the communities in and around their factories.

2. Definition of Environmental Sustainability

The rate of harvesting renewable resources and depletion of non-renewable resources for an indefinite period is known as Environmental Sustainability. If they cannot be reserved for an indefinite time, then they are not sustainable. According to previous definitions, environmental sustainability is dependant on economic sustainability. But now, for the next 50 years, it is impossible to achieve both economic growth and sustainability at the same time. Sustainable architecture is also an important part when talking about environment.

Thus focusing on the environmental pillar of sustainability is extremely important as various types of pollution levels are rising, dead oceans, and severe weather. By having a clean environment, the other two pillars will become strong. As a result of which the level of economic development will be satisfactory and social fulfilment will be robust.

In favor of Environmental Sustainability, Herman Daly proposed that:

  • The rate of harvest should not exceed the regeneration rate in the case of renewable resources.
  • The rate of generation of waste from different projects should not go beyond the environmental assimilative capacity in case of pollution.
  • In the case of non-renewable resources, the reduction of the non-renewable resources should need similar development of renewable replacements for that resource.

Below are a few more examples of environmental sustainability which are taken by big companies:

  • Walmart has taken initiatives to import from yellow and green factories, reduction in the usage of plastic bags, zero-waste production, and initiatives for the reduction of carbon footprint, and reducing the energy consumption to maintain the environmental sustainability.
  • Recycling of telecom equipment, reduction of the energy use, carbon intensity, finding new technologies for more greener and eco-friendly packaging are some of the important steps taken for environmental sustainability by Verizon.
  • Water, raw materials for agriculture, packaging related to food, and systematic manufacturing and distribution of the finished products have been identified by Nestle as the four areas to manage their environmental sustainability.

3. Definition of Economic Sustainability

The capability of the economy of a country to support a particular defined level of economic production indefinitely is known as Economic Sustainability. Different nations across the globe are explaining their economic goals in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It is calculated based on the total production of the nation in one year.

In 2010, the GDP for the European Union was 16 trillion dollars, 15 trillion dollars for the USA, 16 billion dollars for Afghanistan, 6 trillion dollars for China, 105 million dollars for the Folkland Islands, and 7 billion dollars for Haiti. The GDP for the top economic goals of the nation varies from year to year.

For a country to be truly economical sustainable, the below questions should be answered with an affirmative answer. They are:

  • Can a nation be economically sustainable for an indefinite time?
  • Will GDP support the goal of the economic system?

Now let us see the answers. For the first question, the answer is that the growth of the GDP cannot be sustainable but the average GDP for each person can be. Just you have to keep in mind that the GDP goals should not clash with the other two pillars of the system.

For the second question, the answer is the goal of human beings should be to enhance the quality of life for those living in long terms. Hence, we can say that economic sustainability occurs when a nation has the percentage of population below the minimum living level standard.

For the next 50 years, India, China, and Vietnam cannot catch up with the economic sustainability in terms of GDP/ person. Ecological Footprint is the consumption measurement of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Right now 12 billion hectares is the total global capacity. In 2007, almost 18 billion hectares were consumed by the population of the world.

According to the latest statistics for Ecological Footprint, an average of 7 hectares is consumed per person in the European countries. They are one of the top countries with a standard way of living and the best economical sustainability. With a 7 billion world population, there would be 49 billion hectares of Footprint. The Global Carrying Capacity will be 12 billion hectares. However, after reaching this point, the capacity utilization of the planet will be 400%. So there will be more than 300% overshoot. This level of environmental and economic unsustainability would destroy the environment instantly.

USA and China, the top two contributors in the emission of greenhouse gases is not even willing to sign the Treaty for Kyoto Protocol. The emission of GHG has increased by 6% in the year 2009. Degradation in the fertility of the soil, deforestation, pollution, and less supply of freshwater is some of the sustainability problems happening due to climatic changes.

If all the above facts and data are put together, it is observed that economic sustainability is almost impossible. So what can we do to rectify it? The only solution for this is to go deep and resolve the root causes of the problems. The intermediary solution will only handle the problem for the time being, but will not eradicate it from the root.

Viewpoints for the 3 Pillars of Sustainability

The following are the viewpoints for the 3 Pillars of Sustainability and is extremely important for the survival of our future generations. Let us have a quick look at them.

The Environmentalists views on nature and natural resources are different from human beings. According to the natural resources should be preserved so that humans can evolve and survive.

The Ecologist does not separate human beings from any entity of the planet nor its resources. According to them, humanity inherits the value from nature and the planet and both of them should be protected.

The Economist measures the sustainability from the viewpoint of the consumer-led culture treating finite resources of nature as an income that will result in the aversion of natural crisis. They believe the system will sort out itself through the advances in the technological section if left on its own.

What is the Importance of the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

All the executives and investors of big companies are asking just one question: Is sustainability advantageous for them? Well, the answer to this is that the 3 pillars of sustainability provide a new pleasing environment for the organization to attempt and assist them in renewing the pledges to the basic goals like shareholder value, efficiency, and sustainable growth. Moreover, the three pillars of sustainability also provide enhanced reputation and public goodwill to the companies.

Any organization overlooking sustainability shortly will face a market penalty compared to the proactive companies, thus enjoying the market revenues. In other words, the 3 pillars of sustainability is an opportunity to systematize various effects under one concept. If neglected, sustainability will have a serious negative impact on the operations in various segments.

Keeping all the three pillars sustainable and stable should be the ultimate goal for the welfare of society. While at certain times, focusing on a particular pillar is important. The pillars work simultaneously with each other. If due to war, the social pillar is weakened, then economic and environmental pillar would be damaged as well. Thus taking these three pillars of sustainability, if we attain only two pillars into account, then we will have:

Sustainability in Social and Economic conditions = Equitable

Sustainability in Social and Environmental conditions = Bearable

Sustainability in Environmental and Economic conditions = Viable


Sustainability encompasses the entire chain of the ecosystem needing accountability from the primary section to the main level. There is an unconditional need for the interference of the government to work with communities and civil society to obtain sustainable growth and development by implementing the 3 pillars of sustainability. Only through proper balance of all the three social, economic and environmental entities, we can achieve true sustainability and sustainable development.