Defining sustainability

Posted by on jan 11, 2017 in Article, Project guidance

sustainability in dictionary by Zerbor/shutterstock

Sustainability. It’s just one word, but it has different meaning to different people. I believe it’s important to define what we mean with sustainability, especially when we work together. This ensures that all people involved, at minimum all team members, have the same understanding. Read on if you want to find out why the most common used definition is not workable and why using systems thinking is.

What others say
The most common used definition of sustainability is that from Our Common Future (Brundtland Report): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition has two issues:

  1. The word need does not give any indication to what we can take from the in many cases limited resources of our finite planet;
  2. We do not know what future generations need.  

Others have tried to come up with better definitions:

“Sustainability is the state of a complex dynamic system. In this state a system can continue to flourish without leading to its internal collapse or requiring inputs from outside its defined system boundaries.” –Except Integrated Sustainability.

“Sustainability could be defined as an ability or capacity of something to be maintained or to sustain itself. It’s about taking what we need to live now, without jeopardising the potential for people in the future to meet their needs.” –Landlearn.

“Sustainable Development is positive change which does not undermine the environmental or social systems on which we depend. It requires a coordinated approach … that involves public participation. Its success depends on widespread understanding of the critical relationship between people and their environment and the will to make necessary changes.” –Hamilton Wentworth Regional Council.

“Improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems.” –Caring for the Earth (IUCN, WWF, UNEP).

“Sustainability encompasses the simple principle of taking from the earth only what it can provide indefinitely, thus leaving future generations no less than we have access to ourselves.” –Friends of the Earth Scotland.
Some key elements that we can take from these examples:

  1. The concept of a limited system;
  2. Responsibility to keep the system ‘going’, or in other words to not destroy it;
  3. Understanding of the system;
  4. Consideration for others, now and in the future;
  5. Quality of life, the ability to flourish.

Systems thinking
In three of the five elements the concept of a ‘system’ is presented. It is therefore relevant to say a few things on systems thinking.

business system by alphaspirit/shutterstock

Systems thinking is an approach that zooms out of the challenge in front of you, to find ways to make sense of how everything interrelates, learning from its patterns and dynamics. We need to analyze systems as a whole to derive meaningful conclusions from them. A system can be defined as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” —Donella Meadows. Examples of systems include the human body, a family, an organization, or an ecosystem.

Integrated sustainability
The concept of integrated sustainability is associated with systems thinking. The word integrated refers to an holistic approach, namely analyzing an entire system to view the world around us and define what sustainable means within that larger context. The well-known triple bottom line of people, planet, profit is a very basic attempt to have a broader perspective on sustainability. Integrated sustainability goes much further and therefore allows for better analysis, solutions and more impact.

Applying integrated sustainability to real-life challenges can be complex. It asks for a practical and coordinated approach. It also asks for a clear and shared definition of what sustainability means. This allows people to clearly define their (project) vision, values and (long-term performance) goals.

Sustainability is… version 1.0
I defined my own definition of sustainability. It includes the concept of a system, aiming for quality of life and allowing a system to ‘keep on going’. Here is version 1, dd 20 December 2016:
“Human society allowing the planet and all its life to flourish while strengthening the capacity and resilience of the systems on which it depends.”

I realise this definition is far from perfect, but I hope it stimulates debate. I invite you to share your thoughts. Contact me at Looking forward to hearing from you.