What is Sustainability?

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we leave it for our children”

Sustainability is a complex concept and can be hard to wrap your head around when not clearly defined and articulated.

There are many ways to define sustainability. In 1987, the United Nations stated that “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. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.”

Sustainability can be spread through any field of study and connected to all aspects of life.

This idea is derived by connecting all the Social, Environmental, and Economic dimensions of sustainability, and creating a harmonious balance between these systems.

Where these three dimensions meet, it enables equitable, ‘strong’ sustainable change, paving a way where top down Governmental led initiatives and grassroots community led initiatives harmonise to help create and nurture prosperous societies.

Such connections can also be seen in the private sector with businesses using guiding concepts such as ‘People, Planet and Profit’, also known as the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (TBL), coined back in 1994 by John Elkington.

However, 25 years later in 2019, Elkington proposed a “strategic recall to do some fine tuning.” Why recall it? He explained that rather than achieving system change, in practice it became “just another accounting system.” 

Elkington goes on to explain that “to truly shift the needle, however, we need a new wave of TBL innovation and deployment…Indeed, none of these sustainability frameworks will be enough, as long as they lack the suitable pace and scale — the necessary radical intent — needed to stop us all overshooting our planetary boundaries.” 

  • Environmental Sustainability –  focuses on the health of the earth, how do we best preserve and regenerate our environment and ecosystems? 
  • Social Sustainability – focuses on making life equitable and fair for all, highlighting social justice and valuing cultural differences between socioeconomic groups.
  • Economic Sustainability – aims to balance long-term economic prosperity with the environmental and social pillars.


  • People – aims to focus on the workers and customers, looking at how the products and services will impact people’s lives.
  • Planet – aims to have a focus on preserving the environment, and different ecosystems while producing products and services.
  • Profit – aims to create a balance between maximizing profits with the planet, and people aspects of a sustainable business.


Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is an important element of sustainability and can help with creating the balance between the social, environmental, and economic systems.

Systems thinking can also be used for solving wicked problems that exist in society today.

It is a form of thinking that goes outside the box, away from linear modes of production towards circular ones.

It allows people to think about problems in a new way, and it is also how we can find new solutions. 

Brain Pop defines systems thinking as a means of understanding a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system.

Systems expert, Donella Meadows, describes a system as ‘an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something’.



Systems and the Circular Economy

The current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment.​

We take resources from the ground to make products, which we use, and, when we no longer want them, throw them away. Take-make-waste. We call this a linear economy.


​We now have the knowledge and tools to build an economy that is fit for the 21st Century.

​It’s called the CIRCULAR ECONOMY

​As leading circular economy thinker, Ken Webster, points out, the circular economy is ‘a story about the possibilities of abundance, of meeting people’s needs by designing out waste, and recreating the kind of elegant abundance so evident in living systems.’



An old story with a timeless message

An ancient Sufi story tells of a city whose inhabitants were blind. One day a king arrived riding at the head of his army on the back of a mighty elephant. Curious to know what sort of animal it was, some of the blind men rushed forward to touch the elephant. One man, feeling the elephant’s trunk, claimed it was like a giant snake, strong and powerful. Another man, touching its feet, said it was like a sturdy tree trunk. And so the quarrel continued with each man claiming that his impression of the elephant captured its true form and likeness.

The lesson is simple: to understand something properly, the parts must be understood in relation to the whole. This story has universal appeal because its essential truth can be applied to all phenomena, from animals to economics. As John Muir observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The key, therefore, to real understanding is understanding relationships.


Firstly, it is important to understand some of the relationships that shape our economy.

At its most basic level an economy is the name we give to a process: society making use of natural resources to create products and services that people need or want e.g. homes for shelter, and food for nourishment.

Viewed in this way, our economy, society, and environment are interdependent systems – the vitality of one affects the vitality of them all. This is the simple yet profound reality that begins our understanding of systems.