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The Four Pillars of Sustainability: What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is Awesome
Sustainability is Awesome

The term ‘sustainability’ often refers to programs, initiatives, and actions targeted at conserving a specific resource. Yet, it actually encompasses four distinct dimensions: human (cultural), social, economic, and environmental, recognized as the four pillars of sustainability.

What is Cultural Sustainability?

Human (cultural) sustainability is about safeguarding and enriching our world’s diverse cultures. This means caring for and protecting our cultural heritage, while also promoting diversity and mutual respect. Human sustainability is also about learning about different cultures and their traditions, understanding the importance of these unique identities in our global society.

Cultural Sustainability
Cultural Sustainability

For businesses, this means seeing themselves not just as profit-generating entities but as part of the societal fabric. Benn et al. (2014) highlight that cultural sustainability should be a key consideration in all business activities, from product creation to service provision. Recognizing the potential impact on communities worldwide, businesses must consider the cultural implications of their actions.

Cultural sustainability also covers the development of skills and capacities that respect and promote cultural diversity. This is important not just for the sustainability of organizations but also for fostering wellbeing in communities and societies.

Key elements of cultural sustainability include:

  1. Preserving cultural heritage: This means protecting cultural heritage sites so future generations can enjoy and learn from them.
  2. Promoting cultural diversity: Cultural sustainability encourages multiculturalism and respect for a diversity of cultures.
  3. Cultural education: A key aspect is learning about different cultures, increasing our appreciation and understanding of others.
  4. Supporting indigenous cultures: It’s crucial to ensure the survival and integrity of indigenous cultures, valuing their unique traditions and wisdom.
  5. Developing local arts and crafts: Supporting local arts and crafts industries helps to preserve cultural practices and can boost local economies.
  6. Language preservation: Protecting and promoting languages is important for maintaining cultural diversity and heritage.
  7. Fostering community through culture: Shared cultural practices can enhance community identity and cohesion, strengthening social ties.

Cultural sustainability is about respecting, preserving, and celebrating our world’s cultural diversity. As highlighted by Benn et al. (2014), it’s a concept that businesses and organizations need to embrace, acknowledging the value of cultural diversity in their activities.

What is Social Sustainability?

Social sustainability is all about preserving what we call social capital. This involves creating and investing in services that form the backbone of our society. With its focus on communities, cultures, and globalization, it’s a concept with a broad perspective. The idea is to think about future generations, recognizing that our actions can influence others and the world at large.

Social Sustainability
Social Sustainability

This kind of sustainability aims to maintain and enhance social quality. It encourages values like togetherness, mutual support, honesty, and cherishes the importance of human relationships. Through laws, information, and shared ideas about equality and rights, we can encourage and bolster social sustainability.

According to Diesendorf (2000), social sustainability takes inspiration from the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. These goals promote social and economic improvements while protecting the environment and advocating equality. This shows how the economy, society, and environment depend on each other.

Key Elements of Social Sustainability

  1. Equity and inclusivity: This involves promoting fair treatment and inclusivity across society, ensuring everyone has the same opportunities.
  2. Access to education: Everyone should have access to quality education, paving the way for personal and societal growth.
  3. Human and labor rights: It’s crucial to uphold and protect human and labor rights, promoting fair work conditions and respect for all.
  4. Quality healthcare: Everyone should have access to high-quality healthcare services, no matter their circumstances.
  5. Community development and social cohesion: It’s important to encourage community development and social unity, fostering strong, supportive, and interconnected communities.
  6. Safe and affordable housing: Providing safe, comfortable, and affordable housing for all is a key goal of social sustainability.
  7. Food security and nutrition: Everyone should have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

Social sustainability is all about nurturing a society that values equality and mutual support, where everyone has access to education, healthcare, decent housing, and nutritious food. This concept, as Diesendorf (2000) outlines, puts a spotlight on the interdependence of our society, economy, and environment.

What is Economic Sustainability?

Economic sustainability is all about maintaining and growing economic capital. While social sustainability works on improving social equality, the focus of economic sustainability is to raise living standards. In business, it’s about using resources wisely to keep profits rolling in over the long term.

Economic Sustainability
Economic Sustainability

As the UK Government explained in their Annual Report (January 2001):

“Sustained and stable economic growth is a key part of sustainable development. We can’t just stop economic growth, but sustainable development isn’t just about growing the economy. The kind of growth matters as much as the amount.”

Some critics, like Hawking (2010), argue that current accounting practices miss something vital—they don’t include the cost of environmental damage in market prices. Benn et al. (2014) propose a newer approach to economics that considers ecological systems (natural capital) and human relationships (social capital). This view questions the idea that endless growth and being bigger are always better, especially if they harm the environment or people.

Key Elements of Economic Sustainability

  1. Sustainable business practices and corporate responsibility: Businesses should adopt sustainable practices and take responsibility for their impact on society and the environment.
  2. Fair economic policies: Policies should be equitable, ensuring fair opportunities and benefits for everyone.
  3. Diversifying local economies: To enhance economic stability, local economies should encourage a variety of industries and businesses.
  4. Job creation and reducing unemployment: Creating more job opportunities and reducing unemployment rates are crucial for a sustainable economy.
  5. Responsible consumption and fair trade: Consumers and businesses alike should aim for responsible consumption and support fair trade, respecting producers and the environment.
  6. Investment in sustainable infrastructure: Investing in infrastructure that meets current needs without compromising future generations is vital.
  7. Financial literacy and access to financial services: People should have the chance to learn about finance and have access to financial services, empowering them to make informed decisions.

In short, economic sustainability is about creating a robust economy that enhances living standards without harming the environment or people. As Benn et al. (2014) point out, we need to think about natural and social capital as well as financial capital when we look at growth.

What is Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is about taking care of our nature and resources such as land, air, water, and minerals to improve life quality for all. The idea is to meet our needs without risking the well-being of future generations. As Dunphy, Benveniste, Griffiths, and Sutton (2000) put it, this concept is all about businesses getting good financial results without hurting our environment, either now or later.

Environmental Sustainability
Environmental Sustainability

This green approach suggests four key areas, or pillars. To be truly sustainable, a business should give equal attention to each pillar. While there might be some overlap between these pillars, it’s essential for businesses to pick a specific green focus. By doing so, they can best incorporate sustainability into their day-to-day practices.

Key Elements of Environmental Sustainability

  1. Promoting renewable energy sources: This means using power sources like the sun, wind, or water, that can replenish themselves over time, rather than using fossil fuels which are limited and harmful to our environment.
  2. Preserving biodiversity: Businesses should be aware of the need to maintain the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat, which is crucial for ecosystem health and services.
  3. Sustainable land use and farming: This means using land efficiently and responsibly, so we can grow our food and other crops without depleting the soil or causing other environmental problems.
  4. Recycling and reducing waste: Businesses should work to limit the waste they produce, and find ways to recycle or reuse what waste they do create, to prevent pollution and save resources.
  5. Reducing greenhouse gases and climate change impact: By cutting down on emissions, businesses can help reduce the global warming effect and mitigate climate change.
  6. Clean water management and marine protection: This means taking steps to keep our water clean, manage it wisely, and protect the ecosystems in our oceans, lakes, and rivers.
  7. Managing air quality and pollution control: Businesses can take steps to reduce their emission of pollutants, helping to maintain clean and healthy air for all.

Environmental sustainability is about making choices today that will allow future generations to enjoy the same resources and opportunities that we do. Dunphy et al. (2000) say that each business needs to decide on its sustainability approach and build it into their operations, to truly make a difference.


As we reflect on the content of this article, we can see the interconnectedness of these aspects and how they influence and sustain each other.

Reflecting on these principles prompts us to evaluate our personal and professional choices. Are we mindful of the cultural implications of our actions? Are we contributing to building a more equitable society? Are our economic decisions mindful of their social and environmental impact? And, are we taking steps to reduce our environmental footprint?

This article underscores the fact that sustainability isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a commitment to a mindful, equitable, and responsible way of life. In essence, the journey towards sustainability starts with us, as individuals, and extends to our communities and businesses. It’s a journey that calls for continuous learning, reflection, and action.



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