Sustainability Defined, and the Basic Principles Behind the Idea of Sustainability

Sustainability Defined
Seventh Generation Philosophy
Other Definitions
Common Principles


Sustainability is many things to many people. It can simultaneously be an idea, an ideology, a manufacturing method, a way of life and a crusade. Unfortunately for many businesses and marketers, sustainability is little more than a hollow buzz word. So what is sustainability?

Sustainability Defined

In order to understand what sustainability is all about it first needs a definition. Sustainability has been defined hundreds of times but the most commonly accepted definition of sustainablilty was created in 1987 at the Brundtland Commission otherwise known as the World Commission on Environment and Development.

This definition states "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs".

This definition has now been incorporated into the Swiss federal constitution and has roots that include the "seventh generation" philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy.

Seventh Generation Philosophy

The Seventh Generation philisophy comes from the Gayaneshakgowa, the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. This states that "in our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations."

Other Definitions

Other definitions of sustainability include:

  • Sustainable agriculture is a system that can evolve indefinitely toward greater human utility, greater efficiency of resource use and a balance with the environment which is which is favourable to humans and most other species. Harwood (1990)
  • We define agricultural sustainability as the ability to maintain productivity, whether as a field or farm or nation. Where productivity is the output of valued product per unit of resource input. Conway & Barbier (1990)
  • Sustainable development involves devising a social and economic system, which ensures that these goals are sustained, i.e. that real incomes rise, that educational standards increase, that the health of the nation improves, that the general quality of life is advanced. Pearce, Makandia & Barbier (1989)
  • Sustainable development, sustainable growth, and sustainable use have been used interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. They are not. Sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms: nothing physical can grow indefinitely. Sustainable use, is only applicable to renewable resources. Sustainable development is used in this strategy to mean: improving the quality of human life whilst living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems. IUCN, UNEP, WWF (1991)
  • Development is about realising resource potential, Sustainable development of renewable natural resources implies respecting limits to the development process, even though these limits are adjustable by technology. The sustainability of technology may be judged by whether it increases production, but retains it other environmental and other limits. Holdgate (1993)
  • Sustainable development is concerned with the development of a society where the costs of development are not transferred to future generations, or at least an attempt is made to compensate for such costs. Pearce (1993)

Common Principles

Regardless of the definition of sustainability the basic principles that underpin the idea of sustainability are:

  • Living within environmental limits
  • Preventing or cleaning up pollution
  • Understanding how the economy, society and environment are interconnected and acting to ensure none are adversely effected

Source: AZoCleantech

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