There are many definitions of “Sustainability.” Some of these definitions are complementary or contradictory to varying degrees, some are more implied than specified, and some are just a few words while others are hundreds of pages long.
In order to study or attempt to document any topic, one must first establish the scope of the project, outline procedures, and define critical terms. The fact that various groups contest the multiple definitions of sustainability does not preclude the necessity of specifying the term — particularly for an initiative purporting to document practices that can be characterized as “sustainable.”
Below is a working definition of sustainability that guides the Sustainability History Project. Students and community members are encouraged to review, critique, challenge, qualify, and otherwise “kick the tires” of this definition in our common quest to understand the topic more thoroughly and integrate lessons into our own lives.
There are three headings below:
Our current understanding of the often-interchangeable terms sustainability and sustainable development can be traced to the United Nation’s Brundtland Commission Report of 1987, officially titled Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. The various concepts bundled within the term “sustainability” each have their own history, and some historians have recently taken it upon themselves to provide the invaluable service of presenting inclusive narratives that identify aspects of the concept that have changed and remained constant across time and cultures.
It is critical to understand three important dynamics integral to formulations and practices of sustainability:
- 1) The term is a product of historical development: The idea of sustainability has changed over time, our contemporary use of the term is but the latest, and this contemporary use is grounded in the Brundtland Commission Report.
2) There are three fundamental pillars of sustainability, as articulated in the Brundtland Commission Report: Ecology, Economy, and Equity. These pillars are distinct enough to categorize broadly for analytical purposes, but they are entwined in fundamental ways that are often hard (if not impossible) to separate when considering specific examples.
3) Any given practice or approach is “sustainable” to the extent that it incorporates the three pillars identified above and to the extent that it integrates methods of quantitative measurement, tracking, and evaluation. Sustainability almost always includes implicit and explicit qualitative elements as well–such as moral, ideological, and political perspectives–but the hallmark of a practice or approach that purports to be sustainable within the contemporary, post-Bruntdland Commission, understanding is that it must be measurable in some way agreed upon by a credible community or coalition.
Based upon these three dynamics, other essential attributes of sustainability include:
- ** Open & Participatory: Agencies and organizations must be open to active involvement of community members. This involvement can include membership, input, voting, advice, appeal, and open access to records, findings, reports, decisions, and other materials. Measurability aids in openness because interested and effected parties are able to provide input into, view, track, and understand the purpose and result of any given practice identified as sustainable.
** Process, not a Destination: No given sustainable practice will be “right” for all communities at any given time. Practices must be specific enough to be measurable in some way, but also must be malleable enough to fit with a specific culture within a particular time and place. Adaptability is a hallmark of sustainability, and is fostered through an open and participatory process. One conclusion to draw from this is that our contemporary understanding of sustainability is not necessarily to maintain the status quo.
** Multi-generational Focus: As a core element of equity, sustainable practices must look beyond the present generation. Advocates of a given practice must state explicitly if their goal is the next quarterly report to shareholders, the next generation, the next 50 years, etc., and thereby expose their claim for evaluation by the broader community.
** Local Implementation Ever Mindful of Regional and Global Impacts: Since sustainability requires active community participation and measurement, it is, fundamentally, rooted in a place and time. Broad global and national sustainability initiatives often provide needed strategic focus, to be sure, but to be considered sustainable these must connect directly with specific, real-world communities and issues, and provide a mechanism for participation and evaluation.
** Has Both Benefits and Costs: Any given proposal may seem to provide benefits to some community members while exacting costs from others; these benefits and costs may fall to the locality or beyond, or may accrue to the contemporary generation or generations in the future. However, since sustainability is an open and participatory practice seeking to balance considerations of economy, ecology, and equity, it provides the impetus and structure within which these benefits and costs can be identified, addressed, negotiated, and tracked.
Corollary to all the above is that if a practice is purported to be “sustainable” but neglects to address the areas above, it falls short of being sustainable, as the concept is framed in the Brundtland Commission Report. The ways in which it falls short can vary along a continuum, from another-work-in-progress to active & conscious misrepresentation for nefarious purposes.
The term “greenwashing” is often used to characterize individuals or groups perceived as operating at the latter end of this continuum.
Arizona State University, Global Institute of Sustainability.
Jessica Dillard, Veronica Dujon, and Mary C. King, eds., Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability, New York, Routledge, 2009.
Robert B. Gibson, “Sustainability Assessment: Basic Components of a Practical Approach,” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 24: 3 (2006), 170-182.
Robert W. Kates, Thomas M. Parris, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz, “What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 47: 3, (April 2005), 8–21.
Oluf Langhelle, “Sustainable Development: Exploring the Ethics of Our Common Future,” International Political Science Review 20: 2 (1999), 129-149.
Oregon State University, Looking for Oregon’s Future: What is Sustainability?.
Portland State University EcoWiki.
United Nations, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.
James V. Hillegas, September 23, 2010