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You may have heard the term “sustainability” used a lot lately. Eco-activists, corporations, influencers, global leaders, and even everyday people are all talking about how it’s the right thing to do. But what is sustainability, and why should you care?

At its core, sustainability is the practice of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” If it sounds pretty important, it’s because it is. Sustainability is essential to the long term survival of life on earth, and it’s something that we all need to pay attention to.

Let’s explore sustainability in depth, its environmental impact, the businesses doing their part, and the benefits of making sustainability a priority.

What Is Sustainability?

According to Investopedia, sustainability is “the ability to continuously maintain or support a process over time.” People often use the term regarding environmental protection, but it can also refer to other areas such as social equity and economic development.

Policy-focused and business-wise, sustainability is about creating practices that will allow us to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. In other words, it’s about meeting our needs in a way that doesn’t damage the planet or deplete its resources.

In addition to sustainability’s definition, four important pillars support it: environmental stewardship, social responsibility, economic viability, and human involvement, which we’ll discuss further below. When combined, these pillars work to create a sustainable future for all.

Infographic of what sustainability is all about

What Is Sustainable Development?

Whenever people hear about sustainable development, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) usually come to mind. And if you thought so, too, you’re on the right track.

The UN 1987 Brundtland Commission Report, as reported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since then, sustainable development has been the UN’s focus to balance the environment, society, and the economy.

Fast forward to 2015, all 193 UN member countries adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The SDGs are a set of objectives to transform our world and ensure that no one is left behind. They cover a wide range of social and economic development issues, such as poverty, hunger, and gender equality, while also considering climate change and preserving the Earth’s forests and oceans.

All member States, regardless of their size, resources, or level of development, are responsible for meeting these goals. And since the SDGs act as a blueprint for a better and more sustainable future, each nation is allowed to devise its unique plan to achieve them – as long as they remain committed to the 2030 Agenda.

Principles of Sustainability

The three main sustainability goals are to protect the environment, foster social equity, and promote economic prosperity. Therefore, sustainable development is based on three fundamental principles to achieve these goals: environment, society, and economy. These principles are also known as the triple bottom line or planet, people, and profit.

1. Environmental Principle

The environmental principle of sustainability focuses on protecting life on earth, in all its forms. It involves reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and taking action to mitigate climate change, conserving natural resources, and cutting back on the dumping of harmful waste into the sea, air, and land. We need to move towards renewable energy sources, adopt green technologies, and promote sustainable practices, such as moving to a circular economy, to achieve this.

2.  Social Principle

The social principle of sustainability focuses on fostering social equity. Approaching this entails providing everyone with the opportunity to live a healthy and fulfilling life, regardless of their circumstances. This involves reducing poverty, ensuring all children have access to education and cutting exploitation.

3. Economic Principle

The economic principle of sustainability focuses on promoting economic prosperity. Implementing this principle requires creating jobs and promoting economic growth while protecting the environment and fostering social equity. Ensuring that everyone can earn a living wage and creating jobs in the circular economy contribute to this.

These three principles are interconnected and interdependent. To build a sustainable future, we need to address all three simultaneously. If not, we risk jeopardizing the progress we’ve made in one area while trying to improve another.

Infographic of the importance of sustainability

Four Pillars of Sustainability

The three principles of sustainability are often referred to as the three pillars of sustainability. But there is a fourth pillar that is just as important: humans. To achieve sustainable development, we need to protect the environment, foster social equity, promote economic prosperity, and build a resilient future.

1. Human Sustainability

Human sustainability is about protecting the health and wellbeing of people worldwide. It involves promoting nutrition, education, health care, and social services. It also entails protecting human rights and ensuring equal access to essential services, natural resources, and all forms of development.

In terms of corporate social responsibility, human sustainability is about creating value for all stakeholders. The latter includes employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, and the communities in which businesses operate. In other words, human sustainability also focuses on an organization’s human capital as its most important asset.

On the same note, human sustainability also looks at the impact of business on society. It assesses how interactions affect the environment, social equity, and economic prosperity. As such, human sustainability requires firms to adopt environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and economically sound practices.

2. Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability emphasizes the need to protect the environment and conserve natural resources while promoting economic prosperity. It aims to find a balance between environmental protection and an enhanced standard of living. It’s also about securing capital for future generations.

Critics, however, say that this approach to sustainability is too narrowly focused on economic growth. They argue that it overlooks the need to address social and environmental issues. In response to this, proponents of economic sustainability have developed new economic concepts, inclusive of two critical factors.

The first element is natural capital, which refers to the ecological systems that provide services essential for human survival and wellbeing. The second is social capital, which comprises the relationships amongst people. Both of these factors take a more holistic approach to economic growth.

3. Social Sustainability

Social sustainability takes on a deeper focus on people and relationships. It promotes social cohesion and inclusivity to include all community members, regardless of race, color or creed. It also strives to balance different social groups, cultures, and globalization.

Mechanisms for social sustainability generate opportunities for dialogue and collaboration to address social issues. They also develop policies, laws, and regulations to protect the rights of all individuals. The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals are an example of this.

4. Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability is about conserving the planet’s natural resources and protecting the environment. It involves preventing the pollution of air, water, and land. It also entails protecting endangered species and their habitats. In addition, environmental sustainability advocates for the efficient use of resources to minimize pollution and waste.

Organizations that adopt environmental sustainability measures reduce their carbon footprint and minimize their ecological impact. Since many businesses have realized that environmental sustainability is good for the bottom line, others have started generating sustainable business models that increase profits and market share.

What Is Corporate Sustainability?

The concept of corporate sustainability came from the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development above. It’s about businesses taking responsibility for their impact on the environment and society.

Its premise revolves around businesses addressing the immediate needs of their stakeholders and consumers while also investing in long-term solutions. It requires reducing their reliance on natural resources, spending on renewable energy, and promoting social and economic inclusion.

Why Is Sustainability Important?

Sustainability is vital for several reasons. First, it’s necessary for the long-term survival of humans and other species on our planet. Second, it may help businesses become more profitable and efficient. Third, it contributes to social inclusion and cohesion. Finally, it’s an essential part of protecting the environment.

Some numbers by the United Nations to think about:

  • We need approximately three planets’ combined natural resources to sustain the lifestyle of the estimated global population of 9.6 billion people come 2050.
  • People waste an overwhelming amount of food produced globally due to poor handling, transport, and storage practices – around 1/3 of all food, or 1.3 billion tonnes, worth roughly $1 trillion.
  • We can save as much as $120 billion yearly by using energy-efficient light bulbs.

These are only a few examples, but they show sustainability’s importance for present and future generations.

Why Is Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Important?

As of 2022, more than 1 billion people can’t access clean water, and 3 billion can’t access acceptable sanitation. Likewise, more than 940 million people still don’t have access to electricity, and 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide pollute the air every year.

All of these problems suggest a significant burden on the environment. To put it simply, we’re using up Earth’s resources faster than we replenish them. And at the rate that we’re going, nations still lag – most with their natural resources being consumed unsustainably.

Thus, the sustainability of natural resources is vital for preserving the environment, human civilization, and the economy. It’s a way to ensure that we don’t deplete the Earth of its resources and that we don’t destroy the environment.

Why Is Environmental Sustainability Important?

If summer feels like it’s getting hotter, it’s not just you. The Earth has broken heat records left and right over the past few decades. The Arctic has warmed the most – by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s. And since 1880, the average global temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.2 degrees Celsius.

We can expect this trend to continue as greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere and trap more heat from the sun. And it’s not just the temperature that we have to worry about. Climate change has led to extreme weather events, like hurricanes, floods, and droughts. It’s also causing the sea level to rise as ice melts and ocean water expands.

Environmental sustainability is important because it’s necessary for the survival of humans and the planet. It’s also a pathway for businesses to become more profitable and efficient. And finally, it contributes to social inclusion and cohesion.

Infographic on how to achieve sustainability

How Sustainability Works

Sustainability works by reducing our reliance on natural resources, investing in renewable energy, reducing waste, and promoting social and economic inclusion. When businesses adopt sustainable practices, they’re investing in the long-term health of their employees, customers, and the environment. The same goes for individuals who choose to live a responsible lifestyle.

But sustainability isn’t just about doing things differently – it’s also about doing things better. Sustainable practices often lead to improved efficiency and profitability. That’s because they help businesses eliminate waste, conserve energy, and improve their reputation.

Sustainability also operates on a larger scale. It’s about creating systemic change that leads to a healthier planet and a more just society. We need to shift the way we think about the economy, development, and progress and move away from an extractive mindset and toward one that is regenerative and restorative.

How to Achieve Sustainability

Achieving sustainability requires a three-pronged approach:

1. Reducing our reliance on natural resources:

Using less water, generating less waste, and consuming less energy.

2. Investing in renewable energy:

Utilizing solar, wind, and hydropower.

3. Promoting social and economic inclusion:

Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the economy and enjoy a good quality of life.

We can protect the planet and its resources for future generations by taking these steps.

Infographic of a fact about sustainability

Challenges of Sustainability

The challenges of sustainability are numerous and complex. They include everything from climate change and dwindling resources to poverty and social inequality. Some of the most pressing challenges include:

Climate Change

One of the biggest threats to the environment. Greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat from the sun, causing the Earth’s temperature to rise. It leads to extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and other problems.

Dwindling Resources

The world’s population is growing, and we’re using up natural resources faster than we can replenish them – from water and forests to minerals and oil.

Poverty

Nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty, without access to basic needs like food, shelter, and healthcare. The lack of economic opportunity and social inclusion compounds this problem.

Social Inequality

There’s a large gap between the rich and the poor, both within countries and across the globe. Because of this, there’s social unrest and even more strain on the planet’s resources.

The good news is that sustainability is possible. It will require a concerted effort from businesses, governments, and individuals to make it happen. But the rewards will be more than worth it. A sustainable future is a bright future for us and the planet.

Infographic of a fact about sustainability

Benefits of Sustainability

There are many benefits of sustainability, both for individuals and the planet. The following are some of the most important:

Improved Health and Wellbeing

Sustainability leads to cleaner air and water, which results in better health for people and animals.

A More Robust Economy

Sustainability creates jobs in the green economy and helps businesses save money by reducing waste and improving efficiency.

A Better World for Future Generations

Sustainability protects the environment for future generations and ensures that they inherit a healthy and habitable planet.

Social Inclusion 

Sustainability promotes social inclusion by allowing everyone to participate in the economy and enjoy a good quality of life.

A Sense of Satisfaction and Achievement

A great sense of pride comes from knowing you’re doing your part to make the world better.

Infographic of a fact about sustainability

Creating a Sustainable Business

As a business owner, you can do many things to create a more sustainable operation. Here are some tips:

1. Know your impact:

The first step is to understand your business’s environmental and social impacts. Doing so will help you identify areas where you can make improvements.

2. Set sustainability goals:

Once you know your impact, you can set goals for reducing it. These goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

3. Engage your employees:

Sustainability is a team effort. You’ll need the support of your employees to reach your goals. Engage them in the process by involving them in goal setting and decision making.

4. Reduce your carbon footprint:

There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint, such as using renewable energy, investing in energy-efficient technologies, and reducing waste.

5. Support sustainable initiatives:

You can support sustainability by investing in green infrastructure, using sustainable materials, and partnering with other businesses that share your values.

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, we must get started and keep moving forward. Every little bit counts.

Examples of Sustainable Businesses or Organizations

Pushing for sustainability is impossible without companies and enterprises at the forefront. Below are some that are leading the way:

Best Buy – Pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, Best Buy has already reduced its carbon footprint by over 61% since 2009. Best Buy’s dedication to offering only eco-friendly products will help its consumers save $5 billion by 2030 in energy savings.

Unilever – The company’s “10 years of the Sustainable Living Plan” (2010-2020) has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from their manufacturing by 65%. They’ve also achieved 100% renewable grid electricity across their sites. Today, they continue to help the environment by reducing the total waste footprint per consumer use of their products.

Apple – With 23 of its suppliers committed to 100% renewable energy, Apple is well on its way to being completely carbon-neutral by 2030. They primarily use recyclable materials on all their devices, from rare-earth metals to upcycled water bottles. To date, Apple’s California headquarters (built in 2017) is 100% powered by solar panels. 

Home Depot – Between 2010 and 2020, The Home Depot has effectively reduced its power consumption by 44%. It aims to be 100% dependent on renewable energy by 2030 and promises to eliminate EPS foam and PVC film usage for its private-brand packaging by 2023.

Tesla – Tesla is leading the charge in sustainable transportation with its all-electric cars. All of Tesla’s factories are powered by renewable energy, and they’re developing solar roofs that would collect energy from the sun and generate electricity for homes and businesses.

The Body Shop – A cosmetics company that has always been a champion of sustainable business practices. They use sustainable ingredients, support fair trade, and have a zero-waste policy.

Green Cross International – A global organization that works to promote sustainable development and protect the environment. They work on climate change, water security, and food security.

Earthjustice – A nonprofit environmental law organization that works to protect the planet and its people. They litigate cases on climate change, toxic chemicals, and wildlife conservation.

Sustainability is important for all. By taking steps to create a more sustainable operation, you can help make the world a better place.

If They Can Do It, Your Business Can Too

Sustainability is not a trend; it’s the new way of doing business. And it’s not just for the big guys – any enterprise can benefit from sustainable practices. So while switching to a sustainable model might seem daunting, there are many resources and support systems available to help you make the transition.

What matters is that you commit to sustainability and start taking steps to implement change. Every business has the power to make a difference. It’s just a matter of taking the leap and doing what’s right for the planet.

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Creating a Better Future With Sustemy

A sustainable future is within reach, but we need to act now. With Sustemy, you can learn how to make your business more sustainable and help create a better future for the planet. Knowledge is power, that’s why our courses cover various topics, from reducing your carbon footprint to investing in sustainable initiatives. We’ll show you how to make a difference while ensuring that your business is more profitable and efficient.

Don’t wait. Sign up for a course today and start making a difference tomorrow!

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