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What is Sustainable Growth? A Guide to Sustainable Development

Updated on March 16, 2012

Sustainable development—what is it? The quickest and simplest answer is the study of how to create and maintain a good quality of life. Yet behind that simple answer is a broad field of learning in ways quality living is achieved, especially having often to deal with conflicting needs.

The United Nations’ Brundtland Commission has produced the most recognizable definition of sustainable development—“to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Yet there is no attendant plan or details.

Whereas some criticize this ambiguity, others view it as the very strength of the idea. Thus sustainable development becomes pervasive in scope touching every sector of society.

The constituent parts of sustainable development are notably three: environmental, economic, and social.


Which is more important to environmental concerns?

See results

Environmental Sustainability: Caring for the Planet

The earth is the primary resource for humankind: we live off of the land, air, and water. There is no alternative to this. But we have full responsibility with how we interact with the ecosystem to keep it healthy, plentiful, and diverse—not only for itself but also for our participation in it. If it becomes sick, so do we; if the earth “dies”, humankind becomes extinct.

Thus environmental sustainability focuses on natural capital and concerns:

  • Clean air and water
  • Maintaining ecosystems and habitats
  • Productive land
  • Sustained energy levels
  • Reducing consumption
  • Clean technology
  • Reducing emissions
  • Reducing waste
  • Creating green spaces
  • Renewable energy
  • Environmental alarm


Etymology: Sustain

From 13th-century Old French (sustenir): derived from Latin and passed to Middle English: to hold up

Economic Sustainability: Value and Its Distribution

Since the earth is the capital we all share, how do guarantee that everyone has a fair share of it? Economic sustainability concerns:

  • Profitability
  • Wealth creation
  • Equitable consumption
  • Employment
  • Workforce issues

The economic sector correlates strongly with both the environmental and social sectors. Raw material is what we all require ultimately (once manufactured) and an economy delivers it. Unfortunately, there are very many people globally that do not have their most basic needs met because of economic unsustainability and misallocation.

This also concerns a growing argument from Third World nations. Many poor countries view sustainable development as encroaching on their economic growth potential. The demands of richer nations for more environmentally sustainable practices come only after they have gained their wealth by the very means they now wish to outlaw. The issue must balance a sound environmental approach with an equal chance at economic viability for all.


Social Sustainability: Becoming Less Consumerist

A sound economy reinforces a happy society. Think about those economic concerns again. People that are employed have the means to support themselves and their families. They then have resources for bettering themselves: education, healthcare, housing. In time, they are able to create their own wealth by saving and investing; and as this occurs society rises.

Social sustainability deals with the social systems that determine a quality of life. It involves the basic needs that must be met for a community to function. Its concerns:

  • Equal opportunity
  • Social welfare
  • Equity
  • Democracy
  • Technology
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Transportation

Social sustainability promotes less consumerism and demands of us the ability to live with minimal requirements.


Cultural Sustainability: Understanding Human Diversity

There is a growing consensus to add a fourth “pillar” to the sustainable development model: culture. Proponents that include indigenous people groups argue that an understanding of ourselves—our beliefs, values, and differences—contributes greatly in comprehending the world and how we go about determining solutions for it.

This sector concerns:

  • Tradition
  • Intellectual and emotional awareness
  • Spirituality and religion
  • Morality and ethics
  • Anthropology
  • Linguistics
  • Activism

Sustainable Development: Science or Philosophy?

As you can see, sustainable development is an extensive field able to provide engaging study to any person. But one needful question: How do we know when we’ve become sustainable? Is this a science with a measurable goal or a philosophy that self-perpetuates and enhances, the goal that ever-renews?

In the end, concern for the world, its customs, and its people is the ultimate good. And the concept of sustainable development, amorphous as it may be, is indeed pliable enough to support our diverse aims at being more responsible citizens of the earth.


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    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      6 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thanks, Mary. Society's lack of regard for our resources is shameful. We complain about what's wrong but turn a blind eye to the very issues by our actions. Sometimes consequence is the best teacher. In fact, I saw your hub on edible containers while reviewing your profile earlier, when selecting the pocket neighborhoods hub. I will go back and read it. Thanks for reading and sharing. Cheers!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

      I, too, am concerned with the very issues you speak of. We use our natural resources like "there is no tomorrow"

      Everyone should be more mindful of sustaining our enviornment. We pollute so badly: I wrote a Hub about a company who is working on edible containers for food and drink. I invite you to read that one when you have some time.

      I voted this Hub up, and will share.

    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Environmental and social sustainability both feed into and subsist on economic sustainability. We've gotta get this one right. Thanks for you comment and interest.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      I found the economic sustainability section the most compelling. The mis-allocation thing really bothers me! Thank you for an insightful and very interesting Hub. Voted up and interesting.

    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thank you, Global-Chica--love the handle! Yes, cultural sustainability is emerging. I get what you're saying about it being included in the social category. I can see it both ways, and I think culture matters. My biggest concern, however, is that cultural sustainability becomes more a part of our public and private discourse because it makes a big difference in our all of our lives and in world decisions, especially with globalization, increasing pluralism, and conflict seemingly everywhere. Thanks so much for your comment and interest!

    • Global-Chica profile image


      7 years ago from New York, NY

      Awesome article, ithebise! I really enjoy reading about sustainable development and all your wonderful articles on the topic. I haven't heard about cultural sustainability and always thought that cultural aspects were part of the social "bottom line". I can see though how culture can be its own aspect. Another thing that I would add is the importance of a long-term outlook on all three, or four aspects. Thanks for the great hub! Voted up and awesome.

    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Well said, Teresa. Personally, I think communities and cities taking the initiative to become sustainable is where it's at because most of the world lives in clusters now. Thanks for your comment!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      An important issue the premises of which even individuals and small communities can apply to their long term goals!

    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      HSchneider, your word--"intertwined"--describes sustainable development well. We must learn to see how one part affects the others. I appreciate your comment and interest.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great comprehensive Hub, Ithabise. We definitely need a more intertwined way of life to sustain us through the coming years. Our environment is falling apart and it is up to everyone in the world to work together to reverse it.

    • ithabise profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael S. 

      7 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thanks, cclitgirl. I've been wanting to read that book since it appeared! Now I must! Thanks for you comment :)

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      7 years ago from Western NC

      Great points and ideas here. This reminds me of Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded." Your ideas resonate with the premise of his book. Sustainability. Ah, yes, good word.


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