The 3 Pillars of Sustainability: Social, Environmental, and Economic

By Angela Tague in Thinking Sustainably

As you green your routine, you'll probably hear the word "sustainability" pop up here and there. For many people, this term is synonymous with protecting the environment, which is certainly a key aspect of sustainability. But environmental sustainability is just one of three facets that, when working in concert with one another, promote a sustainable lifestyle. These interdependent elements are often referred to as the three pillars of sustainability.

What Are the 3 Pillars of Sustainability?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, "To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations." In essence, the natural environment provides everything humans need to survive, but people must actively make personal and corporate decisions to protect these resources. These decisions impact people's wellness now and in the future.

Several organizations and institutions view sustainability through the framework of three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. Working together, these elements help to define sustainability issues and inform sustainable-focused decision-making to create balance and longevity for people, the planet, and profits. Environmental advocacy groups, government agencies, progressive universities, and mindful businesses all use this longstanding methodology to make important strategic decisions that affect consumers and local and global societies.

Here's a closer look at the importance of the three pillars of sustainability.

Family having picnic outside

Pillar 1: Social Sustainability

Bard Graduate Programs in Sustainability defines social sustainability as ensuring all basic human needs are met both on an individual level and as a community. This pillar includes implementing processes that increase affordable access to health services, housing, employment, and education.

Social sustainability also focuses on the importance of safety for all individuals. This might be achieved through establishing democratic processes, building equitable opportunities, encouraging diversity, and developing systems that promote a feeling of connection.

While many of these examples take place at the legislative level, individuals can also encourage social sustainability. In your community, social sustainability might look like a food pantry service at a church, a resume-building workshop at a local college, or a weekend health fair held in the high school gym.

When social sustainability is addressed, it empowers people to take better care of themselves and the world around them. This pillar is a core foundation that makes way for the other two pillars to thrive. When people's basic needs are met, they can then do good for others.

A man picks up trash on some rocks by a river.

Pillar 2: Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability might be the pillar you're most familiar with when it comes to sustainability. It directly ties into preserving nature and is the mission behind many green initiatives.

Bard Graduate Programs in Sustainability describes environmental sustainability as protecting and enhancing air and water quality, reducing environmental stressors on these systems, and improving biodiversity. Environmental sustainability can be achieved by working to decrease climate change, pollution, and waste and by striving to mindfully use natural resources.

While this pillar might seem distinct from social issues, the reality is that environmental issues often affect underprivileged people most. For example, the World Health Organization explains that 99 percent of the population breathes air that exceeds the organization's guideline limits on pollutants created by chemical, physical, or biological means. And, sadly, the most affected regions are low- and middle-income countries. This is just one illustration of how efforts to promote sustainability in one area naturally affect others. Making small changes (whether negative or positive) has a domino effect that impacts the entire system.

In your daily life, environmental sustainability might look like taking part in a recycling program, doing a science experiment with your kids to explain air pollution, picking up litter in your community, or installing a low-flow toilet in your bathroom.

A close shot of a professional team pointing at graphs and charts on a piece of paper

Pillar 3: Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability has to do with all things financial and how they relate to the environment. The most obvious place this takes effect is in the business world. While there's still a long way to go, many manufacturers are working toward more sustainable practices, including product development, packaging, and shipping. When a product development team considers how manufacturing will affect air or water quality, for example, they're taking part in an effort to build an economically sustainable business.

Economic sustainability also extends to individuals and includes job availability and creation, businesses' profitability, and the security that having financial resources provides. When people focus on creating financially stable conditions, they in turn nurture social wellness. And the inverse is true too. When people do well financially, they have the energy and ability to give to others, whether by supporting a local family or regularly giving to a charitable organization.

Building a More Sustainable Future Step by Step

These three areas must work in tandem to support sustainable goals. When people feel supported through social sustainability, they're more likely to get involved with environmental sustainability efforts. They're also more likely to advocate for economic sustainability in their connections with employers and volunteer positions. From major corporations' impacts to small, individual choices people make each day, the importance of the three pillars of sustainability is clear: they measure awareness and encourage thoughtful discussions that can help us move toward a more sustainable future.

To learn more about sustainability, check out this starter guide for how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

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Why It's Good

Understanding the complexity of sustainability allows you to be more informed and embrace advocacy roles in your community. Social, environmental, and economic stability are how we ultimately support our local and global communities.