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What is sustainability?

Philip Sutton
Director, Strategy,
Green Innovations

1 July 2004
Written for Eingana, the journal of the Victorian Association for Environmental


A search on the web reveals hundreds of definitions of sustainability and sustainable

development1. And Tony Douglas of Essential Media Communications2 has found
that the community at large finds the term sustainability confusing but they are very
clear about what unsustainable means.

How can we deal with the immense diversity of opinion and with the confusion that
some people feel? Is there a correct definition of sustainability or sustainable

The meanings of words gain their legitimacy from shared use so in the final analysis
there is no correct meaning3. But words also help shape our understandings so the
key question needs to be not what is the correct definition? but what do we want
sustainability to mean?

The origin of the word sustain

Sustain has been in the language for thousands of years. It comes from the Latin
sustenare meaning "to hold up" ie. to support. From there it evolved long ago to mean
to keep something going or extend its duration, with an overtone of providing the
support or necessities that made the extended duration possible eg. a sustaining meal.
These days, for commonest non-specialised use of the word the closest synonym is

Sustain and its derivatives (eg. sustainability, sustainable, sustaining) were first used
in a micro or personal context. However several hundreds of years ago the Swiss and
Germans invented a form of forestry designed to keep the forest going as productive
systems over the very long term and this was called, in the English speaking world,
sustainable forestry. This idea was then extended to sustainable fisheries.

For example see Susan Murcotts list a web link is in the references.
Sometimes the meaning of words can evolve into almost their opposite. For example terrific used to
mean to cause extreme terror now it most often means extraordinarily good. The linking meaning
was probably exciting eg. the roller coaster ride was terrific.

From there it was not such a big step for the term to be applied, during the 1960s and
70s, in the macro context of environmental issues where there was a need to sustain
the whole environment and human society. This usage was established by the time of
the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm.

The drifts in meaning

Having reached a macro level of application sustainability was most often talked
about in terms of sustainable development. The 1980 World Conservation Strategy
produced by IUCN put forward the concept of sustainable development meaning
development that would allow ecosystem services and biodiversity to be sustained.
The 1987 Brundtland Report shifted the meaning of sustainable development to mean
development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs. Then the 1992 UN Conference on
Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio set in train processes such as
Agenda 21 and Local Agenda 21 that resulted in many people coming to the view that
sustainability equals the integration or balancing of environmental, social and
economic issues or simultaneous progress in the environmental, social and economic
domains, often in the context of strong programs of consultation and participation.

Many people however felt uneasy with the notion of development as it is often
associated with the destruction of environmental and social attributes that they value,
so they felt better talking about sustainability rather than sustainable development.
So, over time sustainability and sustainable development came to be treated by
many people as synonyms. This trend was reinforced because some people found the
term sustainable development to be a bit of a mouthful and they used sustainability
as a convenient (if inaccurate) shorthand.

As the scale of the task of achieving a sustainable environment and society has
become apparent many people have tried to insulate themselves from the enormity of
the challenge by retreating into small incremental changes. So some people have
started to say that sustainability is a process of change and not an end state, and that
its the journey that counts, not the destination.

As the terms sustainability and sustainable development have been used more and
more in government and corporate circles, because of increasing discussion of
environment and development, the business world has started using the terms more
and more for its own purposes. Curiously in this context sustainable has quickly
reverted to its earlier simple meaning of able to be maintained. So sustainable
profits, or sustainable competitive advantage mean profits or competitive advantage
that can be maintained for the longer term.

A typology of definitions

The huge diversity of definitions of sustainability, sustainable development and other

related terms can be understood better if they are grouped using the following

1. definitions based on the essence

(x is/means y; eg. sustainability is/means the ability to sustain something,
sustainable development is development that can be maintained, sustaining4
development is development that sustains something)
2. definitions based on strategies for achieving the thing being defined
(the achievement of x requires eg. y; the achievement of sustainability requires,
for example, the integration of environmental, social and economic issues)
3. definitions based on the outcomes of the thing being defined
(x results in y; eg. sustainable development results in the meeting of needs of
the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations)
4. definitions based on what a movement with that label tries to achieve
(X is what the X movement strives for, ie. X encompasses y; eg.
sustainability is what the Sustainability movement strives for ie. Sustainability
encompasses the protection of the environment and people, peace, and end to
poverty, the meeting of human needs, enhancement of human wellbeing,
promotion of happiness, etc., etc. etc.)

Furthermore any of these types of definitions can be framed in a more general or a

narrower context eg. applied to whole systems eg. society and the environment or just
to specific contexts eg. the environment or a particular species, or to specific human
communities or a particular economy.

If a type 2, 3 or 4 definition is written so that it sounds like a type 1 definition, that is,
x is/means y, then it will be very misleading. Unfortunately a great many
definitions of sustainability or sustainable development violate this principle, for
example, the famous Brundtland definition of sustainable development. The
Brundtland definition is a type 3 definition.

How the Brundtland definition is most often paraphrased: Sustainable development

is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability
of future generations to meet their own needs
How it was actually written in the 1987 Brundtland report: Humanity has the ability
to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs..
(definition quoted from p.8 of the Report)
How the Brundtland definition could be more accurately paraphrased: Sustainable
development is development that results in the needs of the present being met without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

What do we want sustainability and sustainable development to mean?

Its now time to return to the question asked at the start of this article: what do we
want sustainability to mean? And what do we want all the other words derived from
sustain to mean?

It would be desirable for preferred definitions:

to build on and not confuse the core meanings of sustain and its derived words
as they exist in the common language
Where sustaining is used as an adjective (not as a verb).

provide the clearest and most solid basis for effective action.

As Tony Douglas has found, people know very clearly when they see cases of
unsustainability. Unsustainability can be identified when people see something being
eroded or faced with the risk of being wiped out or made extinct. People recognise
these situations whether they apply to people, their society, the economy or nature.

But for some reason people at the moment tend to find the definition of sustainability
confusing. This could be for several reasons:
because people tend to jump to type 2 definitions (ie. defining a concept in terms
of the strategies needed to bring it about) and they are not sure in practical terms
what needs to be done to achieve sustainability
because the commonly used definitions of sustainability are confusing: for
example, type 2-4 definitions are very often disguised as type 1 definitions so
the essence of the concept is obscured
because people have heard of more than one definition and they do not
understand why there is so much diversity and they find it hard to choose the best
because some people try to make one term or family of terms mean everything: if
people create a movement to try to achieve an all-round better society and world
and they label that movement the Sustainability movement then they will tend to
try to define sustainability as everything that is good and desirable, thus obscuring
the core meaning of the word.

In common usage there is no doubt that sustain and its derivative words are based on
the core meaning of maintain or extend in duration. And it turns out that this
meaning is critical for effective action.

If something (an actual tangible thing, or an attribute of a tangible thing, or an

understood and not outlandish potential5) is threatened with erosion or extinguishment
then this threat to its sustainability needs to be kept in the centre of our mind,
otherwise we may fail to craft actions that are equal to the problem in terms of the
scale and urgency of action. This is even true when problems are to be solved through
proactive efforts to create a long-term systems-based positive future6.

So what would be useful type 1 definitions? The following are simple and powerful

sustain means to maintain through time7

The elimination of poverty is very often associated with sustainability programs. This is despite the
fact that poverty has been associated with societies for thousands of years and there is little evidence
that the presence of poverty is automatically and universally associated with the erosion of society or
the environment. However what is clear is that poverty erodes the clearly evident human potential of
every single person caught in its grip. So with poverty there is an issue of the sustainability of personal
or community potential.
It is preferable to try to eliminate problems as a by-product of an effort to create a comprehensive,
systems-based long-term positive future because in the absence of a positive program the problem
solving effort can degenerate into a series of isolated and ultimately futile attempts to eliminate
negative symptoms.
Where the thing to be maintained can be recreated if it is lost then the process of sustaining includes
restoration of the thing. Even where the thing itself cannot be recreated, the process of sustaining

sustainability (noun) means the ability or capability to maintain or sustain

sustainability (adjective) means having to do with maintenance or sustainability
sustainable means durable or able to be maintained or sustained
sustaining (adjective) means having the propensity to maintain or sustain
sustainment8 means the act of maintaining or sustaining something

So, a sustaining economy would be one that tends to sustain something of value. A
sustainable firm would be a company that was able to last for a long time. A
sustainability policy would be a policy that deals with sustainability issues whereas a
sustainable policy would be one that was able to persist through time.

With these definitions, how do we know what is being sustained? We must look to
the context of what is being talked about to find out. If the context does not provide a
clear meaning then we must be alert to the fact that we dont actually know what is
being sustained and we must actively seek clarification.

If we ourselves want to communicate clearly we should provide context to our

language and make it clear whether we are talking about, say, ecological sustainability
or social sustainability or economic sustainability or whether we are talking about
holistic or triple bottom line sustainability (eg. covering the environmental, social and
economic domains.)

These days an interest in sustainability is highly acceptable, so many actions or

programs are labelled as sustainability initiatives. But if the proponents of the action
or program cannot tell you what it is that they are attempting to sustain then the
chances are that the action or program is in fact not about sustainability at all or at the
very least is poorly framed to achieve the implicit sustainability goals!

If you want to frame effective sustainability actions then the very first questions to ask
what am I trying to sustain or what do I want society to sustain?
for whose9 benefit is sustainability being pursued?
what is the appropriate scale and urgency of action?

Sustainable development

It is extremely unhelpful to understanding if people use the terms sustainability and

sustainable development interchangeably ie. as synonyms. Sustainability is about
continuity and development is about change. Combining these produces, not
necessarily an oxymoron, but a change process where some things are transformed
while other things or attributes are maintained. Since there are many things about life
that we want to change (exploitation, unhappiness, poverty, destructiveness, etc.) and
there are many things we want to sustain, where they exist or can be recreated (the

includes the restoration of conditions that will favour the survival or continuity of the thing to be
There is such a word!
It could be for the benefit of people or other species of life or both.

rest of nature, trust, tolerance, honesty, happiness, health, etc.) then the notion of
sustainable development can be very valuable.

Where people feel uncomfortable using the D word (development) sustainable

development can be defined so as to make it clearer what we mean by development -
by using the notion of genuine progress:
ie. sustainable development means genuine progress that can be sustained because
the underpinnings of the environment, society and the economy are maintained.

A more proactive form of this concept would be sustaining development which

would mean a change process that delivers both genuine progress and the
maintenance or sustainment of . (whatever the society wants to sustain)

The Race to Sustainability

The definitions recommend above are very simple. But when we try to work out what
needs to be done to sustain the environment and our communities globally the
necessary action program inevitably becomes very complex indeed. So what should
we make of the journey and destination concept? Which is more important?

If we are concerned with sustainability because there are things in the environment or
our society or the economy that are likely to be seriously eroded or that might cease to
exist altogether, and if we depend on these things or we care about them for some
reason10 then there is no doubt that the destination matters critically. If we dont get
to the destination (ie. a condition of sustainability) then the things that we want to
sustain are eroded or cease to exist. The journey (the process of achieving
sustainability) is of course vitally important. But only as a means of getting to the
destination (the desired future state). In the race to sustainability, we fail in our
primary purpose if we dont get to the finishing line11.

The destination of sustainability is not a fixed place in the normal sense that we
understand destination. Instead it is a set of characteristics of a future system. A
useful clarifying analogy is to compare the achievement of sustainability with the
achievement of personal health. Our lives or our quality of life are at risk is we fail to
achieve the destination of health. But getting to the destination of health doesnt
mean that our lives become static. The number of ways that a person can live their
life while being healthy is enormous and the options can change over time too. So too
with sustainability. Achieving the destination is the purpose of the journey but when
we get there society and the environment will not be static.


Eg. our ethics or feelings lead us to care about them eg. other living things or our feelings make
them important to us eg. natural beauty or aspects of our cultural heritage etc.
Green Innovations, the Sustainable Living Foundation, the Australia New Zealand Society for
Ecological Economics and a number of other organisations are developing a formal program called the
Race to Sustainability. The aim of the program is to turn the metaphor of the race into a literal race to
achieve sustainability. See:

Over the last two decades the meanings of sustainability and sustainable development
have morphed in ways that are not helpful for clear understanding or effective action.
Distinct concepts have been blurred ( sustainability and sustainable development are
now often treated as synonyms) and often there has been a reversal of means for ends
(eg. the means for achieving sustainability are substituted for the ends ie. many people
say that sustainability means the balancing12 or integration of environmental, social
and economic issues, rather than the ability to maintain or sustain something of

It is time we reviewed our sustainability language and re-established simpler, more

powerful meanings that tap into our common language and that empower us to take
effective action to actually achieve the sustainability of the things we depend on and
the things we love.


Susan Murcotts list of definitions of sustainable development

Other papers on sustainability by Philip Sutton:

Sustainability: getting orientated
Sustainability: Woolly, feel-good & unachievable? Or a vital goal for practical
Sustainability: What does it mean?
Ecological sustainability

This definition might even lead to the trading off of one factor against another so that something that
people ideally would like to see maintained is in fact not sustained at all. The achievement of
sustainability (and genuine progress) depends on the application of a no major trade-offs approach.